The Ninety-Five Theses
The medieval Christian had very little fear of hell. The keys to heaven and hell had been given to St. Peter, and according to the Petrine Theory,1 were possessed by St. Peter's successors, the popes. Through the sacrament of penance the penitent sinner could confess his or her sins to a priest, who then pronounced absolution. The confessed sinner was forgiven the guilt and eternal punishment that was due for sins committed. Although the guilt and eternal punishment for confessed sins was forgiven by God, there remained a burden of temporal punishments that had to be satisfied, either in this life through good works or after death in purgatory. Since all but the saints could count on spending an indefinite time in purgatory making atonement before passing on to heavenly bliss, it was purgatory that the individual most feared. The least punishment imposed in purgatory was thought to be worse than the worst punishment imposed by the church in this life. Also, the time spent in purgatory could be indefinite. A medieval pilgrim, for example, who viewed the relics on display in the Castle Church at Wittenberg, was forgiven a total of 1,902,202 years and 270 days in purgatory. Pilgrims wondered how many years of purgatory might yet remain.
1 The Petrine Theory is based on Mathew 16: 13–19. In Verse 19,
Jesus says to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of
heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and
whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven [NIV].” The
Roman Catholic church teaches that Peter was the first bishop of
Rome and passed the authority believed to have been given to him
by Jesus in this passage on to his successors, i.e., the popes.