Although denying the existence of purgatory as formulated in Roman Catholic doctrine, the Anglican and Methodist traditions along with Eastern Orthodoxy, affirm the existence of an intermediate state, Hades, and thus pray for the dead, Eastern Orthodox Churches believe in the possibility of a change of situation for the souls of the dead through the prayers of the living and the offering of the Divine Liturgy, and many Orthodox, especially among ascetics, hope and pray for a general apocatastasis. Judaism also believes in the possibility of after-death purification and may even use the word "purgatory" to present its understanding of the meaning of Gehenna.
The word purgatory has come to refer also to a wide range of historical and modern conceptions of postmortem suffering short of everlasting damnation and is used, in a non-specific sense, to mean a condition or state of suffering or torment, especially one that is temporary.
While use of the word "purgatory" (in Latin purgatorium) as a noun appeared perhaps only between 1160 and 1180, giving rise to the idea of purgatory as a place (what Jacques Le Goff called the "birth" of purgatory), the Roman Catholic tradition of purgatory as a transitional condition has a history that dates back, even before Jesus Christ, to the worldwide practice of caring for the dead and praying for them and to the belief, found also in Judaism, which is considered the precursor of Christianity, that prayer for the dead contributed to their afterlife purification. The same practice appears in other traditions, such as the medieval Chinese Buddhist practice of making offerings on behalf of the dead, who are said to suffer numerous trials. Roman Catholic belief in after-life purification is based on the practice of praying for the dead, which is mentioned in 2 Maccabees 12:42-44, what the Roman Catholic Church has declared to be part of Sacred Scripture, and which, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, was adopted by Christians from the beginning, a practice that presupposes that the dead are thereby assisted between death and their entry into their final abode.
Shortly before becoming a Roman Catholic, the English scholar John Henry Newman argued that the essence of the doctrine is locatable in ancient tradition, and that the core consistency of such beliefs is evidence that Christianity was "originally given to us from heaven". Roman Catholics consider the teaching on purgatory, but not the imaginative accretions, to be part of the faith derived from the revelation of Jesus Christ that was preached by the Apostles. Of the early Church Fathers, Origen says that "He who comes to be saved, comes to be saved through fire" that burns away sins and worldliness like lead, leaving behind only pure gold. St. Ambrose of Milan speaks of a kind of "baptism of fire" which is located at the entrance to Heaven, and through which all must pass, at the end of the world. Pope St. Gregory the Great says that the belief in purgatory is "established" (constat) and "to be believed" (credendum), insisting, however, that the purgatorial fire can only purify away minor transgressions, not "iron, bronze, or lead" or other "hardened" (duriora) sins. By this he meant that attachments to sin, habits of sin, and even venial sins could be removed in purgatory, but not mortal sin, which, according to Catholic doctrine, causes eternal damnation. Over the centuries, theologians and other Christians then developed the doctrine regarding purgatory, leading to the definition of the formal doctrine (as distinct from the legendary descriptions found in poetic literature) at the First Council of Lyon (1245), the Second Council of Lyon (1274), the Council of Florence (1438–1445), and the Council of Trent (1545–63).
Some denominations, typically Roman Catholicism, recognize the doctrine of purgatory, while many Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches would not use the same terminology, the former on the basis of their own sola scriptura doctrine, combined with their exclusion of 2 Maccabees from the Protestant Canon of the Bible, the latter because the Orthodox Churches consider purgatory a non-essential doctrine.
The Catholic Church gives the name purgatory to the final purification of all who die in God's grace and friendship but are still imperfectly purified. Though purgatory is often pictured as a place rather than a process of purification, the idea of purgatory as a physical place with time is not part of the Church's doctrine.
According to Catholic belief, death is immediately followed by the judgment in which the soul's eternal destiny is specified. Some are eternally united with God in Heaven, envisioned as a paradise of unending bliss, where Theosis is completed and one experiences the beatific vision. Conversely, others reach Hell, that is chiefly a state of eternal, irreversible separation from God often envisioned as an abode of unending torment, often characterised as a fire that may be considered metaphorical.