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All Of The Versions Of Purgatory

No one truly knows what happens to human beings after they die. For many people, religious beliefs about the afterlife help fill in this mystery, whether it's faith in some sort of paradise or the exact opposite. According to Catholicism, there's another afterlife option known as purgatory. What is purgatory and how would you know if you were there? It's a celestial waiting room of sorts where impure souls not clean enough for heaven - yet not sinful enough for hell - go through purification and suffering before being sent on to heaven. There's no clear answer about how long this process takes, leading people to sometimes use "purgatory" as an synonym for being stuck in a seemingly endless state of anguish.

Catholics' belief in the afterlife is intense, with sinners burning in hell and entities like the Archangel of Death Samael hunting down the doomed. But while concepts of places like heaven and hell exist in many other religions, Catholicism's solid belief in purgatory is relatively uncommon. Interestingly enough, even though it became a core belief of the religion, there's no mention of purgatory in the Bible. Other Christian religions rejected the idea, claiming the act of people being cleansed of their sins defeats the purpose of Jesus's sacrifice. Despite this, other religions practiced all over the world do have some slightly similar ideas to purgatory, with their own beliefs of a realm or state of existence that's not quite life but neither heaven nor hell either.

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  • In Judaism, Gehenna Is Either A Place Of Purification Or Doom For Sinners
    Photo: Publishers of the 1890 Holman Bible / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In Judaism, Gehenna Is Either A Place Of Purification Or Doom For Sinners

    Since the Torah never brings it up, there is no specific answer in Judaism for what happens to people after they expire. According to some more modern teachings, people who refrain from sin are sent to Gan Eden after they perish, while those who aren't so nice go to Gehenna, also known as Gehinnom.

    Jewish literature claims Gehenna extends indefinitely under the ground with fires roughly 60 times hotter than those on Earth. There are several gates through which smoke rises along with a sulfur smell. However, sinners go to Gehenna not only to be punished but also purified.

    Those sent to Gehenna stay there for 12 months, and sinners with less severe offenses can be purified, allowed to perhaps ascend out of the fiery depths and on to Gan Eden. Not all earn the right to leave, however, and people who slandered or mistreated their neighbors, shamed others, or committed adultery must stay in Gehenna. Some Jewish people believe the sinners who must stay face eternal damnation, while others think the fires burn the bodies and souls of these sinners to ash, completely eliminating them. 

  • Islam Features Barzakh, A Place Of Limbo Between Paradise And Hell
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Islam Features Barzakh, A Place Of Limbo Between Paradise And Hell

    According to Islam, between the time a person perishes and the Day of Judgment, they become trapped between the two states of existence, thanks to a barrier created by Allah. Islam calls this barrier Barzakh, a curtain of sorts that separates two things and does not allow them to meet. Suffering, including physical anguish, does not exist in Barzakh since the body is no longer made up of matter. The same applies to the world of Barzakh; it resembles the reality on Earth but does not have a physical presence.

    Scholars believe Barzakh is beyond human understanding. They compare people's existence there to figures from dreams, as these may appear to be living people who simply don't exist in a physical sense. Islam claims things smell, sound, and taste better in Barzakh - to extremes humans beings can't even imagine.

    Stories also claim many of the spirits of Barzakh have the ability to visit the world of the living to check on their loved ones. The spirits of believers see only good things surrounding their friends and family, while disbelievers exclusively witness things agonizing and bad.

  • In Tibetan Buddhism, Rebirth Is A Temporary State Known As Bardo
    Photo: Musée Guimet / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In Tibetan Buddhism, Rebirth Is A Temporary State Known As Bardo

    Buddhists believe in reincarnation, wherein after we expire, our consciousness goes on to become other human beings, animals, residents of hell, demi-gods, or ghosts. According to Tibetan Buddhism, a state known as bardo exists between the time people pass and their rebirth.

    This state lasts for 49 days, beginning with the person's demise and their consciousness's realization and acceptance that it's no longer alive. After reflecting on its former life, the consciousness experiences a series of apparitions which, depending on what kind of karma the person created for themselves during their life, may confuse it and lead it astray from finding enlightenment. If this happens, the consciousness experiences rebirth and transitions itself into a new body.

    Because the prayers, thoughts, and words of living people can still reach a person's consciousness in bardo, the loved ones of people who passed can help them navigate the confusing bardo state. Religious teachers known as lamas recite the Tibetan Book of the Dead, called Bardo Thödol, to people who've perished to help in this way. The thinking behind this is if the consciousness can be helped along and guided during its journey, it may be better able to reach Nirvana or at least be reborn into a more favorable existence.

  • Zoroastrians Wait Until The Resurrection In Hamistagan, A Place Between Heaven And Hell
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    Zoroastrians Wait Until The Resurrection In Hamistagan, A Place Between Heaven And Hell

    Founded long before Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, Zoroastrianism developed many of the concepts included in these other religions. Like Catholicism, Zoroastrianism entails the concepts of heaven, hell, and something in between. Zoroastrians believe the souls of late individuals stay on Earth for three days before ascending to the Chinvat Bridge where judgment occurs.

    Those free of sin cross the bridge with a heavenly companion and live the rest of their days in a blissful garden. Conversely, sinners discover a different bridge - one too narrow to allow them to walk. Sinners then fall into the Zoroastrian version of hell, known as the House of Lies, ruled by a Satan-like being called Ahriman.

    However, those people who had performed good deeds yet sinned in an almost equal amount find themselves in a place called Hamistagan. It is considered a neutral state wherein visitors are neither mistreated nor rewarded.

    Unlike Catholicism's purgatory, people in Hamistagan don't have the ability to work their way out. Instead, they must wait there until Judgment Day, when the world comes to an end and the final messiah returns. In this way, Hamistagan is more comparable to the Catholic idea of limbo, but it's still an undesirable place to end up.

  • Wiccans Travel To Summerland Where They Reflect On Their Karma Before Reincarnating
    Photo: Malloym / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Wiccans Travel To Summerland Where They Reflect On Their Karma Before Reincarnating

    While Wiccans tend to believe different things, one common idea most can agree on is reincarnation. The idea centers around spirits being reborn in different forms to learn new lessons, experience novel things, and grow. When the spirit learns as much as it can in its present form, it succumbs to fate. Thoughts about what happens next differ, but many Wiccans feel the spirits of late individuals travel to a place called Summerland.

    There, spirits can relax among beautiful forests or fields while they reflect on their past life and discover what they learned. Souls can even meet up in Summerland and exchange information. While souls are not judged in Summerland, their review of what they did right or wrong during their life can help them move on. Souls travel to Summerland as a mini-vacation of sorts, a staging area for their next life. When they are ready to reincarnate, the soul travels back to the world of the living to be reborn.

  • In Voodoo, The Soul Passes Through The Underworld To Reunite With Ancestors  

    Voodoo practitioners believe humans have five parts, including two parts of the soul: ti bon ange, or little good angel, as well as gros bon ange, or big good angel. When a person perishes, the gros bon ange, which acted as their life force, goes back to the cosmos to be recycled.

    The ti bon ange stays near the body for up to nine days and becomes susceptible to capture by a sorcerer, who can turn it into a zombie to do their bidding. During this time, the soul passes through seven gates of Guinee, the afterlife that exists between the living world and the "deep waters" where the deceased's ancestors reside.

    Though this realm is a purgatory of sorts, the soul experiences no suffering or anguish. It can, however, be denied access through the gates if it fails to provide a suitable offering to the loa spirits that allow or deny entry. If a soul doesn't make it through, it will be forced to wander Earth as a zombie. At the seventh and final gate, the soul is greeted by Baron Samedi who, if he agrees to help, guides the soul to the deep waters where it reunites with ancestors and transforms into a spirit.