Purgatory and 2 Maccabees 12:39-45

by Luke Wayne

The Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory teaches that people who die while in God's grace but who are not sufficiently purified of their sinfulness to enter God's presence must undergo a time of purification through temporary suffering in the torments of purgatory. Unlike hell, purgatory is not a final judgment on the wicked but rather a finite period of purging for the insufficiently righteous. It is a place where one suffers for one's own remaining sin before entering into heavenly bliss. Such a doctrine would seem to imply that Christ's sufferings were insufficient to sanctify the believer, and so the issue is no small matter. Roman Catholics will often claim that purgatory is affirmed even before the time of the New Testament in the Jewish Apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees. Contrary to Roman Catholic dogma, the Apocrypha should not be considered authentic Scripture, so finding the doctrine of purgatory there would not grant it biblical authority. If the claim that 2 Maccabees teaches purgatory were correct, however, this would at least demonstrate the idea of Purgatory to be an ancient tradition rather than a late innovation developed centuries after the time of the New Testament, as it otherwise appears to be. Unfortunately for the Roman Catholic apologist, however, the passage in 2 Maccabees doesn't say anything about purgatory, nor does it in any way imply the Roman Catholic dogma.

In the passage, the Jewish leader Judas Maccabeus leads his army into battle. God grants them victory, though some of Judas' men were struck down by the enemy. When during the preparation for burial, they discover that each of the dead was secretly an idolater who was wearing amulets of devotion to pagan gods under their clothes:

"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. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out," (2 Maccabees 12:40-42a).

The relevance of this passage to our discussion begins here, as the Jews pray to God to blot out the sins of men who have already died. To someone reading with Roman Catholic assumptions already in place, the mention of people praying about the sins of the unrepentant dead can only be a reference to the doctrine of purgatory. Already, however, we have details here that do not fit the Roman Catholic doctrine. Purgatory is only for those who have died in God's grace. If someone dies while guilty of a mortal sin for which they have made no absolution, they die outside of God's grace and under His wrath. They will not receive purification in purgatory. They will be justly punished in hell. Roman Catholic teaching regards willful idolatry committed in full knowledge of God's moral law to be a mortal sin. The passage is clear that these were not ignorant pagans. They were Jews who knew that what they were doing was forbidden by God's law. These men died in unrepentant, willful idolatry and active devotion to false gods. Therefore, on Roman Catholic teaching, they died outside of God's grace. That they were under God's wrath is further exemplified by the repeated emphasis on the death of these men as a direct judgment from God on them for their sin.

"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," (2 Maccabees 12:42b).

So, even in the situation presented in the narrative, we see that this story does not quite fit in the context of the Roman Catholic teaching of purgatory. Further, the mere act of praying that God would forgive a dead person's sins does not imply that there is a place in which that person temporarily suffers to pay for their sins before being allowed into heavenly bliss. The passage goes on to explain itself more fully:

"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. 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. 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."

Judas Maccabeus collects money from all the men in his army. They send the money to Jerusalem to buy the appropriate sacrificial animals to make offerings for the atonement of the sin of these fallen soldiers. Why? According to the text, it is because of the expectation of a future resurrection. It is not because these men were presently confined to the sufferings of purgatory and hoping for release. Not only is there no indication that any such consideration ever entered the mind of either Judas or the author of the book, but there is a clear statement of exactly what was in mind. Judas wanted these men to share in the reward of the righteous on the day of resurrection. He was not considering the present reality of their death and any suffering their souls might currently be enduring. His focus was the future hope of their physical life.

What's more, Judas' action doesn't imply that these men's sin would eventually be atoned for by their own sufferings in purgatory. Instead, Judas sought to atone for them through temple sacrifices. The text praises this as a noble act because it embodies Judas' faithful hope in the day of resurrection. It speaks of a splendid reward for "those who fall asleep in godliness." Judas desired for his men to share in this reward, and so he prayed and made offerings in hope that "they might be delivered from their sin." If they are not, then they will face judgment rather than reward when the resurrection comes.

Thus, this isn't talking about purgatory. It reports the act of a general who loved his men and believed in the resurrection of the dead, and so he offered atoning sacrifices at the temple in hopes that God might accept them, forgive these men, and grant them eternal life and reward instead of a future of suffering. His hope was not to shorten their stay in some form of purgatory but rather to mediate their release from sin, death, and hell. If this points to any New Testament teaching at all, it points forward to the true and ultimate atoning sacrifice of Jesus Himself, who offered His own life at Jerusalem for the sins of many, even many who had died before He came. This text preserves a Jewish tradition that God might accept a sacrifice from the righteous on behalf of the wicked rebel who can make no offering of his own. In as much as there is any truth to that hope, it is fulfilled in Christ. Christ was the only truly righteous person, and all who are in Adam are dead idolaters without any hope in ourselves for salvation or life to come. Judas wanted his offering to count for his men. He wanted to make atonement at the temple in their place. Thus, what we find in this old Jewish tradition is not a belief in purgatory. What we find instead is a belief in the possibility of vicarious, substitutionary atonement. Even the apocryphal 2 Maccabees doesn't teach that the dead can be purged of sin through their own purgatorial suffering. It does express a hope that maybe a righteous person can atone on the helpless sinner's behalf. What the true Scriptures show us, however, is that neither the nobility of a man like Judas Maccabeus, the value of his silver, nor the blood of the sacrificial animals he bought is truly enough to atone for sins. At best, they point as an imperfect parable to the only thing that really is enough: Jesus Christ and His all-sufficient offering of His own perfect self on the cross of Calvary.