A Refinery Called Purgatory

Many of us would have heard of Purgatory from pop culture, most notably the Divine Comedy (aka Dante’s Inferno) by Dante Aligheri. Deriving its name from the Latin root word purgare, it means to purify and to remove dirty/impure things. It was one of the main teachings that the Protestant Reformation sought to establish doctrinal stances around.[1]

What is Purgatory

Purgatory is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) as follows:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.[2]

and

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.[3]

This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.[4]

As mentioned in another article, the Roman Catholic understanding of justification is not the same as the Protestant understanding of Justification. The Protestant understanding of Justification takes on a more forensic overtone as it builds on the belief of Imputed Righteousness, where the perfect iustitia aliena (alien righteousness) of Jesus Christ is imputed onto the believer at the moment of belief and the believer’s legal standing before God is made right. Conversely, the Roman Catholic understanding of Justification is built on infused righteousness which is seen as the preparation of the believer’s disposition to a sanctifying process where a believer’s righteousness can be enhanced or diminished, rather than a declarative of a believer’s legal standing before God.  Because a believer is infused with saving grace and the righteousness can ebb and flow with the observance (or neglect) of the Sacraments and other works, it stands to reason that at the end of a believer’s life a believer may still have some unrighteousness left from lesser sins.[5] Purgatory is then the final purification to rid the believer of the leftover unrighteousness after which he may enter heaven.

Scriptural Support

For the sake of brevity, the author will only be highlighting the passage most commonly raised by Roman Catholics when defending the doctrine of Purgatory which is 2 Maccabees 12:38-45.

Other verses also commonly raised to defend the doctrine of Purgatory include Matthew 5:26, Matthew 12:32, 1 Corinthians 3:15, Colossians 1:24, and 1 Peter 3:19-20. As these books are all present in the Protestant bible and thus available for self-study, the author will leave these verses out.

Catholic apologist Tim Staples writes on Catholic.com as below:

A Very Good Place to Start

Perhaps the best place to start is with the most overt reference to a “Purgatory” of sorts in the Old Testament. I say a “Purgatory of sorts” because Purgatory is a teaching fully revealed in the New Testament and defined by the Catholic Church. The Old Testament people of God would not have called it “Purgatory,” but they did clearly believe that the sins of the dead could be atoned for by the living as I will now prove. This is a constitutive element of what Catholics call “Purgatory.”

In II Maccabees 12:39-46, we discover Judas Maccabeus and members of his Jewish military forces collecting the bodies of some fallen comrades who had been killed in battle. When they discovered these men were carrying “sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear” (vs. 40), Judas and his companions discerned they had died as a punishment for sin. Therefore, Judas and his men “turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out… He also took up a collection… and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably… Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”[6]

Aside from asserting the non-canonicity of the book of 2 Maccabees, the author would argue against Staples that even within this passage, it does not support the doctrine of Purgatory the way that he writes it in his article and is at best silent on the issue. To establish this point, let us read through the whole passage to understand the context:

2 Maccabees 12 38-45 (NRSV)

38 Then Judas assembled his army and went to the city of Adullam. As the seventh day was coming on, they purified themselves according to the custom, and kept the sabbath there.

39 On the next day, as had now become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kindred in the sepulchres of their ancestors.

40 Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen.

41 So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden;

42 and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen.

43 He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection.

44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.

45 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, so that they might be delivered from their sin.

In short, Judas Maccabeus’ army had just defeated the governor of Idumea, Gorgias’ army. Judas was looking through the clothing of his own men that died in the battle and found that they were carrying amulets of the idols of Jamnia and asserted that this was the reason these men were slain in battle. He then collected some money as a sin offering for those that died and is praised by the author of Maccabees for doing so.

Refutation

Upon initial reading of the passage, it would seem that Staples has a case for a proto-Purgatory especially from v.43-45 as the author of Maccabees did imply that Judas prayed and made atonement for the dead. However, this can be refuted with a simple read through with basic hermeneutics.

Let’s read through v.43-45 and highlight the content Staples left out in his article with ellipses.

43 He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection.

44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.

45 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, so that they might be delivered from their sin.

Though the books of the Hebrew Old Testament were written mainly in Hebrew and Aramaic, the books of the Apocrypha, including 2 Maccabees, were generally written in Greek. The word translated as “For” in v.44 is εἰ in Greek. The Greek εἰ is a Conditional Participle or Conjunction which means that the subsequent serves as an explanation to the notion presented beforehand.[7] In other words, v.44 serves to explain the reason for Judas’ actions in v.43. V.45 then serves as the antithesis to the reason provided in v.44.

We see here the author of Maccabees in v.44-45a explaining the foolishness of Judas’ actions if he did not believe in their resurrection and commending the wisdom of Judas’ actions if he did believe in their resurrection. In other words, the author is providing commentary on Judas’ action and commending the consistency of his actions with his belief regardless of whether it was factual or not, not postulating the veracity of his beliefs. In simpler words, the author of Maccabees is praising Judas for not being a hypocrite rather than telling the readers that his beliefs were correct.

Closing Notes

There are many other passages that serve as antitheses to the doctrine of Purgatory. The author has only addressed one particular passage as it is one commonly referred to when discussing this doctrine.  The author strongly encourages readers to read the book of 2 Maccabees for themselves so that the readers may be spurred to inculcate a Berean spirit and examine for themselves to see if these things are true.[8]

Fides Quarens Intellectum

 

[1] Cf. 95 Theses by Martin Luther; Article XXII of 39 Articles of Religion and other notable works

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1030

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1031

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1032

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church 1030

[6] Tim Staples, Is Purgatory in the Bible? on Catholic.com

[7] Strong’s Greek Concordance #1487

[8] Acts 17:11

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