Heaven and Hell are simple concepts. When people die, good ones go to Heaven, while the bad ones go to Hell. But what about the others, those who aren't good enough to meet the strict prerequisites of Heaven, nor evil enough to deserve Hell?
Enter this trope.note
This trope is about places, usually called Purgatory or Limbo, which serve as the intermediate afterlife between Heaven and Hell, where morally average people go after they die. The concept not being unique to any one religion or universal to most of them, however, can mean the names get co-opted for any number of other purposes.note
Often the first place that people come when they die, this may be simply an Afterlife Antechamber: a waiting room of the dead, where the souls of the departed may be assigned to their final destination by some manner of Celestial Bureaucracy. Alternatively, in the event of a Near-Death Experience, this may serve as a brief respite where the hero can confer briefly with a dead loved one or mentor before coming Back from the Dead to fulfill their ultimate destiny.
What these (meta)physical places are actually like varies greatly. Sometimes it's shown as another world, much like our own. Bleaker works may depict it as a dull greyish void where nothing happens, or a misty ruin, shadowy forest, endless cave or desert, or a dark version of the real world. Sometimes it's a literal waiting room, or a bright garden or chamber of white stone with light pouring in from Heaven proper. The Limbo of The Divine Comedy is a serene and beautiful but endlessly dreary castle on the outskirts of Hell. It won't be a place of endless fiery torment, but it won't be paradise, or even as relatively pleasant as being alive.
For some this may be a short stay, while for others it can last anywhere from a few centuries to all eternity. Sometimes the duration is a sentence based on the exact amount of bad karma a given soul has to work off. Alternatively, it may be an Epiphanic Prison which will last as long as it takes for the soul within to realize enlightenment, let go of their past, or truly repent their past deeds — possibly never. It's not The Nothing After Death or outright Cessation of Existence, but some of those trapped in Limbo might start to wish it was.
Compare Void Between the Worlds, the emptiness between Alternate Universes or higher planes of existence, which is often depicted similarly, particularly when the various afterlives are portrayed as universes unto themselves.
Not to be confused with Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory, an Audience Reaction about literary interpretation, although when the Rule of Symbolism is in play, Angels Unaware and Devils In Disguise may indeed be present in Purgatory, and God could very well be your copilot through Limbo.
As with all Death Tropes, beware of spoilers.
- Anastasia: Rasputin is stuck in Limbo thanks to a) his curse on the Romanovs being incomplete and b) him selling his soul for the power to cast said curse. Here, Limbo is portrayed as being in the center of the earth, with not much to offer except talking bugs.
- In Jacob's Ladder, a major influence on Silent Hill, the final reveal is that Jacob died in combat in Vietnam, and what he saw as his life falling apart and the demonic visions he wasn't sure were actually real was actually all just a Dying Dream, preparing him for the afterlife.
Louis: Eckhart saw Hell too. He said: The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you, he said. They're freeing your soul. So the way he sees it, if you're frightened of dying and... and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth. It's just a matter of how you look at it, that's all. So don't worry, okay? Okay?
- In the Van Helsing movie, the priest/bishop at the beginning states that if Dracula isn't vanquished by Anna Valerious, her whole family will stay in Purgatory.
- In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the "white hotel room" Dave Bowman finds himself in after entering the monolith is a secular version of this, as it is an intermediate step between his existence as a human being and his existence as the immortal Starchild.
- Tales from the Hood: It's highly implied that Crazy K's "experimental treatment" in prison is actually some form of Purgatory. It would fit with a lot of the symbolism in the segment, including the fact that it occurs after he was shot, the staff of the institution tend to dress in all white, the offer of redemption being accompanied by the need for purification, the state of torment while there, etc.
- Purgatorio, the middle work in Dante's trilogy The Divine Comedy, is set in Purgatory. In the same book, Limbo is the outermost circle of Hell and the final destination of "failed" souls who never attained salvation but aren't evil enough to merit any worse punishment than simply being estranged from God forever. In contrast, Purgatory is a sort of tough-love reform camp for saved but flawed souls who need to finish the process of becoming perfected enough to enter Heaven.
- In the Heck books, it's established that if a minor is bad, instead of going to Hell, they go to a place called "Heck" that is like Hell, but not as bad and is essentially a reform school where the kids are taught to drop the Seven Deadly Sins.
- Over Heaven Under Hell by Margo Lanagan is set in a realm where "the only hunger is for hunger", where people who commit suicide or never heard the gospel go, and the inhabitants of which eventually earn entry into heaven by working for the Celestial Bureaucracy.
- In Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series, Limbo is where the various Incarnations live when they aren't on Earth actively running the universe. Their "support staff", the people who serve and support the Incarnations in their jobs, are all dead people who weren't good enough to get into Heaven, nor evil enough to be sentenced to Hell.
- In Warrior Cats, the Dark Forest was originally treated as a purgatory for warriors that betray the Warrior Code. They would wander in a cold, starless forest. Later books stray from this idea.
- Parodied in Wintersmith where the Nac Mac Feegle help Roland visit the (or rather, an) underworld and explain "This one used tae be called Limbo, ye ken, 'cuz the door was verra low."
- The final revelation in Life on Mars (2006)/Ashes to Ashes is that the setting is Purgatory for dying and dead police officers.
- Logan's Run: In "Night Visitors", Gavin plans to sacrifice Jessica in order to release his wife's spirit from Limbo.
- A common fan theory in the early years of Lost was that the Island was purgatory and that the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 were in fact Dead All Along. The creators denied the theory, which was ultimately Jossed by various characters escaping the Island, before ultimately returning. In the Grand Finale, however, it turned out that the final season's Flash Sideways, rather than being an Alternate Timeline, were actually a Flash Forward to a point where all the characters who had died by the end of the series were in purgatory, awaiting the realization of their own death that would allow them to move on
- The Good Place:
- The simple view taken in the series of goodness, though progressively getting more complex, is also applied to the names of various afterlives — the Good Place and the Bad Place. Originally, the architects' system was so cutthroat that it was one or the other, no matter how bad or good, until Mindy St. Clair died under unique circumstances - she was a cocaine addicted shark lawyer and a generally nasty person in her earthly life, but then had a drug-fueled epiphany to set up a charity, only to die after withdrawing her whole life savings and her sister was so inspired by this that she opened the charity in Mindy's name which went on to help millions of people. The Celestial Bureaucracy wasn't sure what to do with her, as her actions in life would've sent her straight to the Bad Place but much good was accomplished in her name, so they came to a compromise, decreed her a medium person and invented the Medium Place, where she languishes all alone in complete and total mediocrity. She doesn't mind it too much, but she would love to have some cocaine again.
- A different version is applied when the main characters, who are in the Bad Place at the start, have become good enough that had they died then, they'd be in the Good Place. This shakes the architects' simple belief that people can't inherently change, which could break their entire system. So the Judge sends the group back to Earth the moment they died as a holding situation to allow them more time — they'd all died young — to prove that they can be good people and that change can happen if you let it.
- In Sleepy Hollow, Purgatory, or the World Between Worlds, is a Dark World in which the spirits of the dead and undead are imprisoned, "trapped in the middle" as they wait to go to either heaven or hell.
- In the St. Elsewhere episode "After Life", Dr. Wayne Fiscus has a near death experience after being shot. His visions include a trip to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory (which surprises him, since as he says, "I'm not Catholic"), during which he meets the souls of patients and friends who have already died.
- On Supernatural, Purgatory is Another Dimension which serves as an afterlife for all the setting's monsters and a prison for Sealed Evil in a Can such as the Leviathans and Eve, the Mother of All. It's an endless, mistbound forest where all souls are fated to perpetually prey on one another. It's "vast, underutilized, and hell-adjacent", according to the demon Crowley.
- While only briefly touched upon in The Bible itself, the descent of Christ into Limbo and subsequent Harrowing of Hell were explored in greater depth in the apocrypha and became a common subject of medieval artwork. Following his crucifixion but before his resurrection, the soul of Christ descended into the realm of the dead and brought salvation to the "Limbo of the Patriarchs" — the outer part of Hell inhabited by those righteous folk who lived and died in the days before they could be baptized and redeemed. Christ "trampling the gates of Limbo underfoot" seems to have been an especially popular (and vivid) image.
- Erebus in Classical Mythology was pretty much a shadowy limbo for "neutral" souls, between Tartarus (Hell) and Elysium (Heaven).
- George Carlin mentions the four places "Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and Limbo" in his album "Class Clown." When the Church purged Limbo, he mentions that he hoped they promoted everyone and sent them to Heaven and, "didn't just cut them off and send them into space."
- In the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, the Fugue Plane serves this purpose: a flat, gray wasteland under an equally colorless sky, the sole features of which is the City of Judgment, ruled by impartial Kelemvor, god of the dead, and the Wall of the Faithless. The souls of mortals are left to wander the city for ten days before being collected by the servants of their gods, during which time they're tempted by devils (per the Nine Hells' agreement with the city) to join the latter's ranks. The Wall, meanwhile, is where the souls of those who worshipped no gods in life (even if they never knew they had to) are pressed into the wall itself and left to languish until their minds and souls disintegrate into nothingness. Controversial in-universe, many see the Wall as a punishment even harsher (the process is said to be agonizing) than that faced by the False (those who betrayed their gods) or souls damned to the Hells.
- In Bayonetta, the Trinity of Realities that make up the universe consists of three realms: Paradiso, the Human World, and Inferno. Between them is Purgatorio, a realm existing parallel to the Human World outside of the Trinity where angels, demons, and magical humans are able to travel to. Here is where Bayonetta is free to wreak havoc on her foes without regard to property damage or bystanders.
- The primary character in Limbo is a nameless boy, who awakens in the middle of a forest on the "edge of hell", looking for his missing sister. The atmosphere in general is a gray place with only silhouettes and the eyes are seen as monochromatic white eyes.
- Silent Hill has the titular town as a kind of fog-covered no-place in which the main characters are faced with horrific Jacob's Ladder-esque Body Horror monsters/demons, manifestations of their crimes, failings, and regrets, and their actions and choices in-game determining whether they escape with their sins expiated, remain trapped in the town, or die there.
'Tis doubt which leadeth thee to Purgatory.
- The setting of Purgatony.
- In The Order of the Stick, the Lawful Good heaven is shown to have a Fluffy Cloud Heaven — like entry area where the newly deceased wait in line to be checked out by the Celestial Bureaucracy to see if they qualify to be admitted to Heaven proper. Player Characters, however, can optionally just wait there until they are resurrected.
- The Adventures of Dr. McNinja: While Ben Franklin is dead (again) he spends his time in Purgatory, which resembles a ritzy restaurant, waiting for meals representing his sins. After two hundred years he's still on the bread.
- Jack has one of the tamer versions of Purgatory. What we see of it appears to be a nice suburb where people act like they did in life, except that nobody can die and angels drop in occasionally to try and persuade the residents to try reincarnation and possibly earn Heaven in their next life (or sin badly enough for Hell).
- Limbo in Dante's Infanzia is established as being where all unbaptized babies end up, managed by St. Jude and Judies, angels who's job is to act as the baby's caretakers and surrogate mothers. This seems to extend to all unbaptized non-believers that do not qualify as adults in their respective society (Dante winding up in Limbo when he died mere seconds before he turned 18). Since God decreed that all who wind up in Limbo are to be treated as babies, Limbo is considered to be a type of Ironic Hell for anyone who winds up there that isn't an actual baby. They are treated as babies (forced to wear and use diapers and baby clothes, are unable to walk, etc.) by the Judies taking care of them and prolonged exposure to this causes them to regress until they start acting as babies without some type of hobby to keep them anchored. After Dante sacrifices himself by throwing himself into Hell, Lysa's continued defiance against Jude's rule regardless of the odds convinces him that she is allowed to leave Limbo and enter Purgatory (which Jude implies will be a type of pre-school for her) as a "Saint-in-Training".
- Featured in a Cutaway Gag in Family Guy, showing the family floating in a white void, feeling ambivalent about the situation.
- Discussed in God, the Devil and Bob: in Episode 11, when Bob's abusive father dies, Bob goes to hell to visit him but the Devil informs Bob his dad is not there. When Bob asks if he's in purgatory then, the Devil admits that the place doesn't actually exist.
- The Ghost Zone in Danny Phantom is this according to Word of God.