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Purgatory in Roman Catholic doctrine, the state of existence or condition of the soul of a person who has died in a state of grace but who has not been purged, or purified, from all possible stain of unforgiven venial sins (pardonable less-serious offences against God), forgiven mortal sins (serious offences against God that destroy sanctifying grace), imperfections, or evil habits. Souls in such conditions must thus be purified before entering heaven.
The doctrine of purgatory is derived from 2nd-1st-century-BC Jewish concepts that persons will be judged by God according to their deeds and that the faithful should pray that God show mercy to souls, a view implied in the New Testament. In II Maccabees, an Old Testament work not accepted as canonical (authoritative) by Jews and Protestants, is found the primary basis for the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory: "But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin" (12:45). In addition to this citation, other indirect references to purgatory, according to Roman Catholic teaching, occur in the New Testament.
During the period of the early church the existence of purgatory was classified by several theologians as a required belief, but it was not until the councils of Lyon and Florence in the Middle Ages and the Council of Trent in the Reformation period that the teaching was authoritatively defined. The matter of the place, duration, and nature of the punishments of purgatory has not been definitively answered.
In addition to the authoritative teaching that purgatory exists, Roman Catholic doctrine holds that the souls in purgatory may be aided by the faithful on Earth through prayers, almsgiving, indulgences, fasting, sacrifices, and other works of piety.
The existence of purgatory has been denied as unbiblical by Protestant churches and most Eastern Orthodox churches, as well as by the independent churches of Eastern Christianity (e.g., Syrians, Nestorians, and Monophysites), although most Eastern Christians believe that the dead can be helped by the prayers and good deeds of the living faithful -- Copyright 1994-1998 Encyclopaedia Britannica.