The Apocrypha, Lesson 14: 2 Maccabees and Purgatory


After we had looked into prayers for the sainted dead in 2 Maccabees, one person in class wanted to explore the verse that followed.  Your teacher tactfully avoided doing so to keep the Lesson on task.  Today, to honor this person’s august wishes (it is August, after all!), we delve deeper in to what Judas Maccabeus also did for those slain in battle.

General Judas Maccabeus did understand the theology of praying for the dead, which both Jesus (John 11:22-23) and the Apostle Paul (2 Timothy 1:18) also held.  Our prayers for the dead include the promise of the resurrection on the Last Day.  “For if he [Judas] did not believe that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been foolish and useless to pray for the dead” (2 Maccabees 12:44).

The problem with what Judas did was that he and the other soldiers believed those who had fallen in battle died in unbelief.  “Under the tunic of each of the dead, they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear.  Everyone then knew why these men had been killed” (2 Maccabees 12:40).

Now, do those in the Church pray for those whom they believe died outside the faith?  No.  What we find, instead, is this censure from the early Church:

For the Bishop … would never seek things, which were not most pleasing to the Almighty God, and divinely promised to be given by Him.  Wherefore, he does not offer these prayers over the unholy fallen asleep … [St. Dionysius the Areopagite, died 96 AD, believed to have been baptized by the Apostle Paul.  In Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Chapter 7, “Concerning things performed over those fallen asleep,” Section 3, Subsection 7, John Parker, translator.]


The Finality of Death

Hebrews 9:27: It is appointed for people to die once, and after [death], the judgment.

This verse does not disprove the possibility of some intermediate stage after death.  The verse simply states “the judgment” comes after death, which may or may not be immediate.  (We know it’s not immediate because the Last Day has yet to occur.)

What meaning does come with this verse is that someone is judged with what he has when he dies.  There is one actual, physical death and there is the judgment.  The definite article (“the”) in the Greek text and “one” show that if some theoretical intermediate existence did exist, it would affect “the judgment” in some way.

So, Roman Catholics are right that this verse does not refute the possibility of an intermediate stage after death.  It, however, does not allow for purgatory, where the saints on earth can affect the (not a) judgment.  Only Jesus does.  For the verse following Hebrews 9:27 shuts out all ideas about purgatory.  “… so also Christ, sacrificed once to take away the sins of the many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).  The one sacrifice of Christ, the person’s one death, and the judgment are all connected in an unbreakable link.  The sins of those waiting for Christ are all taken away, requiring no intermediate purgatory.


Judas’ Panicked Actions

Believing his fallen soldiers died outside the Faith, Judas panicked and tried to do something to save them.  The irony of the verse we will read is that it refutes the very actions Judas takes!

2 Maccabees 12:45:

But if he [Judas] 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.

  • What awaits those who die in godliness?


  • Does Judas have the authority to “make atonement” for the dead who fell asleep in ungodliness?


  • If a Priest cannot literally “make atonement,” what then did he do for the living?


  • How did the Priest’s actions connect to “Christ, sacrificed once to take away the sins of the many”?


Do the Eastern Orthodox Churches Believe in Purgatory?

Like the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Church (see Lutheran Confessions, Ap, 21, 9), the Eastern Orthodox Churches consider 2 Maccabees to be Scripture.  So, if 2 Maccabees did teach the idea of making atonement for the dead, they should also believe in purgatory.  They don’t.

… the Latin doctrine of purgatory or punishment by a temporal fire created by God, which the Orthodox reject as error….  and it is generally interpreted as having been a dogmatic expression unduly influenced by western scholasticism.  [The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, “Judgment,” by Wendy Paula Nicholson.]

Thus the Orthodox Church distinguishes two different conditions after the Particular Judgment: one for the righteous, another for sinners; in other words, paradise and hell.  The Church does not recognize the Roman Catholic teaching of three conditions: (1) blessedness, (2) purgatory, and (3) gehenna (hell). [Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, by Michael Pomazansky, St. Herman Press, chapter, “The Particular Judgment: The Fate of Man after Death until the General Judgment.”]


Rome’s Purgatory

The Roman-Catholic Church believes in an intermediate state of existence for heaven-bound souls called “purgatory.”  The word comes from the Latin purgatorium in the 12th century, meaning a “means of cleansing or purging.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

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.  [CCC, Section 1030]

Since we now understand 2 Maccabees doesn’t really support purgatory, does the Roman-Catholic church use any New-Testament passages to support their teaching?  Yes.

1 Corinthians 3:15

But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.  [New American Bible]

What’s the context for this verse?  A few verses earlier, the Apostle Paul stated that he had laid a foundation for the Corinthians, which was Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-11).  Paul had done that as a pastor of the Church, bringing them Jesus in Word and Sacrament.

No one is to build on Christ for his salvation, for anything we do is tainted with sin and, thus, useless.  But what happens if someone trusts in Christ for his salvation but also thinks what he does has to have some merit with God.  What happens then?

Paul answers: “the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it” (1 Corinthians 3:13, NAB).  When will these self-relying works be revealed?  On the Day, which is the Last Day when Christ returns, the “Day of Judgment.”  So, someone who trusts in Christ but also looks to himself in some way for salvation, those “works” will be revealed and “burned up” on the Last Day.

How long will this burning up of those works take?  How long will it take for us to be before Jesus after He raises our bodies from the grave?

1 Corinthians 15:50-55

50 This I declare, brothers: flesh and blood [context: our fallen flesh] cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does corruption inherit incorruption.

51 Behold, I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.  53 For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality.  54 And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?” [NAB]

  • How long will it take for the Christian to be “changed”?


  • If all this takes “an instant,” what does this testify about purgatory?


14, Purgatory


The works being burned up are a result of the fallen flesh.  So those works “burn up” when the body is raised, cleansed in an instant to reunite with the soul to live in the new heaven and earth.

1 Peter 1:7

To understand this verse, we need to understand it within the flow of Peter’s thought.  To do this, we look at 1 Peter 1:3-7:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you 5 who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time.  6 In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

The question before us is this: Does “a little while,” the time when “you may have to suffer through various trials,” refer to purgatory or not?  Although Peter uses “fire” imagery like Paul, their time lines are not the same.  The suffering Peter refers to does not take place on the Last Day.  How do we know?  He uses the word, “now” [Greek, arti] (1 Peter 1:6).  So, this suffering is not in purgatory but here on earth.


Purgatory’s Origin and Growth in the Church

Here is Saint Augustine on purgatory:

And it is not impossible that something of the same kind may take place even after this life.  It is a matter that may be inquired into, and either ascertained or left doubtful, whether some believers shall pass through a kind of purgatorial fire, and in proportion as they have loved with more or less devotion the goods that perish, be less or more quickly delivered from it.  This cannot, however, be the case of any of those of whom it is said, that they ‘shall not inherit the kingdom of God,’ unless after suitable repentance their sins be forgiven them.  [Enchiridion, 69]

  • Was Augustine sure about the existence of purgatory or was surmising the possibility of its existence?


  • According to Augustine, if a Purgatory were to exist, to whom did it only apply?


Although Augustine used the term, “purgatorial fire,” the Latin term for purgatory, “purgatorium,” dates to around 1170.  In 1215, at the 4th Lateran Council, the Roman-Catholic Church began to set out the actual length of time in Purgatory required of souls, further defined at the Council of Florence in 1438.

Purgatory, however, did not become fixed in the mind of the Roman-Catholic rank and file until Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320 AD).  His version of purgatory filled in much detail lacking until then.  First, he separated purgatory into seven terraces, each one corresponding to a sin: Pride, Envy, Anger, Laziness, Greed, Gluttony, and Lust.  On each terrace, a different form of suffering took place.  The envious, for example, had their eyes sewn closed.  The proud were weighed down by stones as they journeyed toward heaven.

The most original aspect of Dante’s Purgatory was the process of a moral change for those undergoing its suffering.  They suffered, not only to repay a debt but to become good.  The result is that they experienced anguish, understanding why—they were acquiring new habits of thought, which would enable them to enter Heaven.  For Dante, Purgatory re-formed the tendencies in the person, which led him to sin in the first place.

Now, you know.


14, Dante's Purgatory


Next Week: The Wisdom books of the Apocrypha.

Link to the next Lesson.