Uffizi, Florence/Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali/Art Resource

Tintoretto: Temptation of Adam and Eve, sixteenth century

It was once said of President Calvin Coolidge, a perfunctory churchgoer and notoriously short-spoken, that when questioned by his wife about the theme of the sermon he had just heard, he answered in one word: “Sin.” When asked to elaborate on what the preacher had said, all he vouchsafed was: “He was against it.”

Paula Fredriksen’s vivid little book is calculated to make even the most inert churchgoer sit up. In three chapters she traces the history of the idea of sin in the first centuries of Christianity. She does this by taking major figures from each century and expounding their distinctive notions of sin: Jesus of Nazareth and Paul for the first chapter; Marcion, Valentinus, and Justin Martyr for the second chapter; Origen and Augustine for the third chapter.

They make a strong cast of characters. Some, like Jesus of Nazareth, Saint Paul, and Saint Augustine, need no introduction. But Marcion, Valentinus, Justin Martyr (who flourished around the middle of the second century), and even the great Origen (who lived half a century later) belong to a Christianity that is deeply unfamiliar to most modern people. Justin Martyr was accepted as orthodox by later generations of Christians. But several of the others came to be considered as heretics. Marcion was condemned for treating the Jewish past as irrelevant to Christianity. Valentinus regarded the universe as a vast mistake, caused by the rebellion of envious supernatural powers. Origen’s enemies claimed that he had castrated himself in his enthusiasm for the ascetic life, and that he was prepared to believe that even the Devil would be saved.

In particular, those who wrote in the Greek East in the second and third centuries CE were a remarkable group. They were fierce intellectuals, engaged in teaching intense coteries of disciples. They were deeply engagé, and often at considerable risk. Justin was martyred because he was denounced as a Christian by a rival teacher of philosophy. Origen was the son of a martyr. When he was a boy he wished to follow his father, and his mother had to hide his clothes to prevent him from running out to defy the pagan authorities. Many years later he would die (in 254) as a direct result of the mistreatment that he had received in prison for his beliefs.

In her presentation of these persons, Fredriksen goes for the big picture. For her, sin is not a set of actions to be castigated or exonerated. Rather, sin is a situation thrown into high relief by the emergence of fierce hopes of deliverance and redemption. Her book is “about what people are redeemed from.” An entire world is involved: What is the nature of the bondage from which humanity craves deliverance? What is the means of gaining that freedom? Above all, how much new freedom can be gained? How much of the old world can be expected to cling to the human person in this life (and, who knows, even in the next)? As a result, a debate about the sort of wicked acts that we might expect the clergy to castigate on Sundays rapidly escalates into a debate about hope for change, about freedom, and about the mysterious play of continuity and discontinuity in the human person, and even in the universe as a whole.

Fredriksen places each of her characters against a distinctive background. Chapter 1, for instance, is dominated by the huge presence of the Temple of Jerusalem. We see it laid out in a drawing and a plan. We feel the thrill of its majesty in the time of Jesus and Paul. It was a place bathed in glory. God was present in it. We are looking back into a world profoundly different from our own, “when one approached the altar of God with purifications, blood offerings, and awe.”

In Fredriksen’s opinion, neither Jesus nor Paul had any inkling that this place of glory would soon cease to exist. For both men, the mighty Temple was the anchor of their hopes. Both had preached, with urgency, the coming of an age when the Temple (and with it Jerusalem), “renewed, enlarged, made beautiful [would] stand at the center of God’s new kingdom.”

Whatever one may think of this view, the fact remains that the Temple did vanish. Between 70 and 135 it (along with much of Jerusalem) was erased by the Romans with a vindictive thoroughness that nobody could have foreseen. In the second chapter, Fredriksen explores the implications of this loss for Marcion, Valentinus, and Justin Martyr. They found themselves in a world that had become threateningly vast. Sin was no longer something that could be set right by sacrifices performed in a glorious, restored temple in Jerusalem. Salvation involved nothing less than the reform of the entire universe.


Fredriksen provides a map of the universe as ancient persons saw it. The human race lay at the lowest point of a resplendent universe. Ancient thinkers (pagans and Jews quite as much as Christians) were alternately inspired and oppressed by a vertiginous upward view. As they stepped out under the night sky, they thought of themselves as looking upward at layer after layer of vibrant beings, each more glorious than the last, each very different from their heavy selves. To sin was to remain caught at the bottom of the universe, as at the bottom of a muddy well. To be saved was to reach the region of blazing, weightless light that marked its top.

In the third chapter, entitled “A Rivalry of Genius,” we meet two very different men—Origen of Alexandria (circa 187–254) and Augustine of Hippo (354–430). It is Origen who needs the most introduction. At first sight, he seems the milder and the more optimistic of the two. He believed that all sins would eventually be corrected, and that all sinners would be forgiven: even the Devil and his angels would eventually be converted. But he also seems alien to us because he shared with his contemporaries the majestic view of the universe that Fredriksen expounds in chapter 2. In this universe, human beings were only part of the story. The entire universe appeared to him to be caught up in a mighty process of transformation. He looked up at the sun, thinking that he saw in it a great soul like himself. Like himself, the sun groaned for deliverance. At some unimaginably distant time, the sun would replace its present, shining carapace with something yet more glorious, as Origen hoped that his own body would be transformed, by becoming ever more spiritual and translucent.

Hence the shock of meeting Augustine at the very end of the book. He is the first figure who seems to tread on familiar ground. Augustine placed the complexity of the human will at the center of his notion of sin. He limited his concern for salvation to human beings alone. Compared with the immensity of the universe, so resolutely human-centered a view of sin and redemption would have struck many as claustrophobic. Fredriksen makes clear how idiosyncratic Augustine’s solution was. Yet it would prove decisive, at least in the Christianity of Western Europe. This was by no means the case with the wider Christian world of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, for which a more “cosmic” positioning of humanity remained attractive. Though Origen was condemned as a heretic, the lingering influence of his magnificent cosmic vision still accounts for many of the differences between the Christianities of East and West.

And so we end with two very different styles of Christianity. One—associated with Origen and continued, in modified forms, in Eastern Christianity—saw sin against the backdrop of a universe whose serene immensity dwarfed the human sense of hurry. It was all a matter of time. What was wrong with the human condition would eventually be set right, by a slow process of purification that stretched unimaginably far into the future, and that involved the universe as a whole.

The other—associated with Augustine, and continued largely in the Catholic West—put human beings at the center. The universe and its unhurried rhythms took second place. And with the eclipse of the universe came a heightened sense of urgency. Human sin was not part of a cosmic drama, which had begun aeons before and would continue for aeons ahead. It involved a human battle against the grip of a concrete human past. And it was a battle that could be fought out only within the narrow walls of an ever more prominent human institution—the Catholic Church.

How do we get from the one to the other—from the calm cosmic vision of Origen to the urgent, claustrophobically human preoccupations of Augustine? Let me suggest that we need to approach this problem from a different direction from that taken by Fredriksen. It strikes me that Fredriksen (as she herself makes plain) is interested in the idea of sin. But she is not interested in sinners. Yet by the age of Augustine, being a sinner was, in itself, an intellectually challenging experience. Not only were there more sinners around, as Christianity settled down, at last, to become a majority religion. Sin itself became interesting. Especially for Augustine, sin was not simply something there to be transcended. It needed to be studied.

I think that this may be because sin became a charged idea with which Augustine and his contemporaries thought through the paradox of discontinuity within continuity that confronted them, as much in their own society as in themselves. It offered a way of thinking about change. Things could change. Things had changed. But how much would they change? How much of the sinful past—the “Old Adam,” the “old leaven”—would continue in the church and in the world?


Not only Christians were involved in this debate about change. Pagans also made pertinent contributions. It is interesting that pagans did not see Christians (as we might see them) as burdened by a sense of sin. It was the exact opposite: they thought that Christians were dangerously lax. They seemed to treat sin as perpetually reversible. Christian insistence on conversion and penance seemed to imply that the past could be shrugged off lightly, that one act of repentance, one mystic initiation of baptism, one statement of regret alone was all that was needed. Christians appeared to believe that they could entirely restructure the personality of the sinner, creating a “new being” out of the unyielding bedrock of human nature.

Such quickie mutations were not for old-style pagans. When the emperor Julian the Apostate wished to caricature his uncle Constantine, the first Christian emperor, he imagined a Banquet of the Caesars in which each Roman emperor was brought to the table by a protecting god. Each god was an upward projection of the character of the emperor he protected. Good emperors got good gods—stern and forceful gods. Constantine got the god he deserved—Jesus Christ. And Christ was a softy, just as Constantine had been a softy. Constantine:


Museo San Marco, Florence/Art Archive/Art Resource

Fra Angelico: detail from the Holy Trinity altarpiece, showing the Temple, walls, and houses in Jerusalem, 1435

He cried aloud to all comers: “He that is a seducer, he that is a murderer,

He that is sacrilegious and infamous, let him approach without fear!

For with this water will I wash him and will straightway make him clean.

And though he should be guilty of those sins a second time, let him smite his breast and beat his head and I will make him clean again.”

Preaching a little over a generation later, in Africa, Augustine was well aware of pagan criticisms:

“It’s your lot [the pagans say] that make people sin, because you promise them total immunity the moment they’re converted.”

I would like to know whether those who say this don’t consider themselves to be sinners…. Can anyone be found who is not a sinner?…into how many sins are the careless and the negligent precipitated?… Take away this mercy, take away this promise of pardon, take away any haven of forbearance in this cruel, turbulent sea of iniquities…won’t they, out of desperation, pile sin upon sin?

This passage comes from a recently discovered sermon of Augustine. But it was repeated throughout his preaching. Eventually, Augustine’s emphasis on the universality of sin set the tone for Western Christendom. Why did it do so? I would suggest that Augustine, through his teaching on sin, gave a triumphant institution such as the Christian church what it most needed—an all-embracing explanation that would account not only for its successes, but also for its failures. It explained why, although a new age was said to have dawned, so little had changed. Though officially Christian, the Roman Empire remained opaque to Christian values. The churches remained full of sinners. The notion of sin summed up a growing sense of failure, of unfinished business that might never be completed despite the nominal triumph of Christianity.

Thus, whenever Augustine wrote about sin he was also writing about change. He grappled with the conundrum of a human nature defined by the unresolved tension between continuity and discontinuity. Like a substance with an unstable core, humans were capable of astonishing mutations brought about by the grace of God. But at the same time, they remained held in the grip both of their own past and of the primeval sin of Adam. Sin explained why the past would never go away.

In his Confessions (in around 397) Augustine relived his own past with gripping circumstantiality. He believed that, though his sins had been forgiven, they might yet grow again if not brought into the present by confession and by repeated prayers for mercy. His past life had not been erased by the euphoric amnesia of a convert. An abiding sense of sin made him continuous with his old self.

In his City of God (which he wrote between 411 and 428), Augustine said much the same about the course of human history. A shared sin held the human race together, from the fall of Adam to the Last Judgment. In such a history there could be no Great Leap Forward. The past could never become entirely past. All that humanity could hope for in the present were fleeting hints of another city—a City of God without sin—that would occur only at the end of time. For the time being, sin was in the foreground. Caught in the unchanging shadow of Adam’s fall, the accustomed landscape of the ancient world had not gone away. It had not been triumphantly relegated to the past. The ancient landscape remained with Augustine (as it would remain with all future generations of Western Europeans) as close and, often, as deliciously vivid as his own sins.

This is where we leave Augustine in 430. For the next chapter in the history of sin in Western Europe, we can turn to the recent important book of Isabel Moreira, Heaven’s Purge: Purgatory in Late Antiquity. Moreira picks up the story of sin where Fredriksen left off—with Augustine in 430 CE—and carries it deep into the early Middle Ages in the West. She deals with the emergence, between 400 and 800 CE, of a highly distinctive solution to the problem of sin, which we commonly associate with the Western, Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.

In many ways, Moreira has faced a more difficult task than Fredriksen. A tale of mystics and heresiarchs in the dream time of the early church is always more spicy to read than an account of the origins of what has become a well-known Catholic practice. But Moreira rises to the challenge. She introduces us to the serious issues that were implicit in the birth of a notion of purgatory in the Christian West.

The most important of these issues was the continuity and discontinuity of the human person before and after death. On this issue, Augustine had fudged. Having created a powerful model of the soul, in which the sinful past still clung so closely to the present person, he resolutely refused to offer any opinion about exactly what would happen to that soul when, at death, it passed into another world. Approached by anxious laypersons on this issue, his answer, in effect, was: “God only knows and He’s not telling.” It was sufficient for them to follow the custom of the church. They should remember the dead at the Eucharist. They should make contributions to the church. They should give alms to the poor for the souls of their loved ones. He refused to offer any opinion on what the effects of these practices might be on the souls of the dead. That door to the other world was firmly closed to him. Why was it, then, that, in the next centuries, the world beyond the grave slowly but surely filled up with vivid scenes that would nourish the imagination of Catholic Europe up to the present?

Moreira answers this question with a book that is thoughtful, learned, and refreshingly independent-minded. She avoids the conventional explanations that have been advanced by scholars since the Reformation. First and foremost, she rejects the view that the growing belief in Purgatory, and in the visions that fed this belief, was a sign of a recession of the European mind, brought about by the fall of the Roman Empire. She cites the vigorous Huguenot polemicist Pierre du Moulin, writing in 1612:

For then learning being smothered by the inundation of the barbarous nations, the Gothes, the Hunnes, the French [sic!], the Vandales, etc….whiles there were no more Basils, Cyprians, or Augustins, etc. The divell taking his time, and making use of the covetise of the Clergie, cosened [duped] the world with visions and aparitions….

She criticizes modern scholars for offering no more than sophisticated versions of this basically polemical account. These scholars see belief in Purgatory as due to the influx of ideas from “barbarian” Europe into the Christian church. In his famous Birth of Purgatory, Jacques Le Goff headed his third chapter “The Early Middle Ages: Doctrinal Stagnation and the Riot of Imagination.”1 Other scholars have claimed to know where that riot of the imagination had got out of control in northern Europe, away from the restraining influence of Roman thought. This was particularly the case among the Irish, “an un-Romanized people, recently converted,” where dramatic otherworld journeys appear to have been popular.2 Moreira calls this a “‘clash of cultures’ model.”

She dismisses this model firmly. For the record, this reviewer is subjected to Moreira’s strictures for what I once wrote about the possible influence of Irish law on the development of the idea of Purgatory in the seventh century. In this, I saw my Irish compatriots not as visionaries, but as canny lawyers, interested in settling every case—even the case of sins—not by punishment but by measured compensation.3 However, that debate on Irish influence on the idea of Purgatory is for another time. What matters here is that Moreira has successfully opened a new approach, which bypasses the “clash of cultures” model.

What she presents instead is worthy of attention. She shows that Christian engagement with the problem of other-world purgation was more continuous than we had thought. It grew out of the mighty paradox of Augustine’s view of the human person as both freed by grace and, at the same time, still mired in the past, through the continued pileup of small sins and of bad habits rooted in the past of each individual. Something had to be done to purge the soul of these almost subliminal layers of sin, if not in this world, then in the next.

I would add that the debate about the otherworld gathered momentum for reasons that might surprise us. Contrary to what Reformation polemicists asserted, belief in Purgatory was not generated by the covetousness of the clergy. Instead, the trenchant book of Éric Rebillard, The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity, has shown that interest in Purgatory was consumer-driven. The laity wanted to know more than their bishops were prepared to tell them about exactly what the money that they had spent for the souls of their loved ones and kinsfolk was buying in the otherworld.4

Moreira’s most important finding is that, at a time when we know that huge fissures between past and present, region and region, had developed across the face of Europe—filling the former spaces of the Roman Empire with an entire new cast of vivid characters drawn from “barbarian” lands—Christian intellectuals had continued to engage in a dialogue that stretched over large tracts of space and time. They surfed the Internet, in effect, through the patient writing and rewriting of texts gathered from many ages and regions. They listened in to the great whispering gallery of remembered Christian controversy, and thereby they kept alive the constant, creative irritant of knowledge of a wide variety of views very different from their own. This was not a time of “doctrinal stagnation” so much as a time of sorting out a rich tradition (contained in so many books) and making it relevant to present-day needs.

Altogether, Heaven’s Purge is a remarkable study of the different ways of seeing others in a world that we usually associate with dislocation and with narrowing horizons. Its hero is the Venerable Bede. Sitting in his library at Monkwearmouth, at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, in around the year 700, Bede (672–735) was able to look down into the Mediterranean world of late antiquity. And what he saw there was what we can now read about in Fredriksen’s Sin. Above all, he saw the towering figure of Origen. Patiently reconstructed from scraps of information and from denunciations of his views by Latin authors, Origen stood out, for Bede, with the challenging strangeness of a great, prehistoric beast conjured up by the paleontologist from a few scattered bones.

And what Bede glimpsed was what Fredriksen has conjured up: “the endless shining plain of Origen’s spiritual cosmos.” This was a universe with all the time in the world for change. God’s sole interest was the improvement of souls. As Origen had said:

God deals with souls not in view of the fifty years of our life here, but in view of the endless world.

In this “endless world” everything could change. Even the Devil himself and his angels might return to the heaven from which they had glided downward, aeons before.

Bede was aware of this wide vision. He pulled away from it. In his opinion, Origen had viewed the conflict of good and evil from too great a height. Not all punishment could be mere therapy. Evil did not always have to have a happy ending. Some wicked persons had no hope. Bede reminded his fellow monks that they also could face eternal Hellfire. They should not expect to be let off easily, by being put, as it were, “in therapy.” “Origen has looked through this,” Bede wrote. But then he added, “Nevertheless, it should be noted” that other, less wicked souls might hope to avoid eternal punishment. They would be subject to the therapy of purging flames. Those with light sins, even those who died with unexpiated crimes on their conscience, might come, after purgation, to Paradise.

For Moreira, Bede’s writings mark the true birth of Purgatory in the Latin church. It is a fascinating moment in the history of Christian thought. A monk in a monastery placed on what had been the furthest frontier of the Roman world had entered into dialogue with a Greek from Alexandria who had lived almost half a millennium before. What Bede offered was, in fact, a miniaturized version of the endless cosmos of Origen. His view of Purgatory created a wide zone between Heaven and Hell that left room for the human soul to change for the better over long stretches of time. With this capacious and more flexible middle region now firmly installed in their image of the other world, the Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries went out to gather in the still-heathen populations of Holland, Germany, and southern Scandinavia.

These northern populations had always taken the afterlife seriously. Ancestral graves, in the form of great tumuli, dotted the landscape. Moreira hints that the missionaries might not have been so successful if they had faced their converts with the stark choice between Heaven and Hell. Purgatory gave them a middle zone in which the dead could linger, less comfortable than Heaven, but closer to earth and to the prayers of their kinsfolk and descendents. Purgatory made sure that the dead would be remembered.

The contrast between Origen and Bede points to a parting of the ways that took many centuries to become definitive. Bede found in Origen a sense of the merciful flexibility of God’s treatment of souls. But what he refused to accept was the boundless spaces of an ancient universe in which Origen expected this treatment to take place. Instead, he offered a place of purgation where everything depended on human agency and on the efficacy of an institution firmly rooted on earth. Release from Purgatory was a very human matter. It depended on the prayers of human intercessors—on human groupings of relatives, friends, fellow monks, and clergymen. And so we catch a glimpse of Bede in his last days, pottering in his private chest for little valuables—pepper, mats, and incense (precious little gifts linked to the exotic, to the liturgy, and so to the other world) to give to his friends in return for their intercession for his soul, through prayers at the solemn ritual of the Mass, celebrated on earth, by humans, in human places and in human time. The church, and not the universe, had become the undisputed locus for the care of human souls.

In a surreal moment in one version of the widely read Vision of Saint Paul, which circulated from the early Middle Ages onward as an account of the apostle’s journey through the otherworld, Paul came upon a man engulfed in purgatorial fire. But the man was smiling. For he knew that, three thousand years hence, a male descendant would become a priest. At his first Mass, this descendant would release the man’s soul from Purgatory. Now that was planning for the future! It was by such largely unexpected and as yet unexplored byways of the imagination (and not only by the preaching of bishops and the writings of great theologians) that Christianity settled in to stay in Western Europe.