Puzzles and Purgatory


When I was younger I had a recurring dream, or more specifically a recurring element in my dreams, which was so ethereally thrilling that upon waking I would almost despair that it was not a reality. Though I don’t remember any of the circumstances surrounding it, I haven’t forgotten the feeling of being lifted up towards the sky…ascending, as Jesus must have when he left the earth…and the accompanying sense of complete peace and joy as well as an exciting anticipation of coming to wherever I was headed. But I always woke up before I got there.

I haven’t dreamt of this supernatural skyward climb since becoming a follower of Christ, which makes me wonder if it was one of the ways God was drawing me to seek him. And now that I am seated “with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”  I have no need or reason to dream about ascending there.

But though the Bible speaks of believers in Christ being with him in the heavenlies now, exactly what we’ll experience once we die and move on to the next life is mostly a mystery. So we dream and imagine and craft complex doctrines of the afterlife to fill in the gaps in our knowledge…which are huge. Virtually every religion and people group has done this, including the Roman Catholic Church, and I return again to her doctrine of Purgatory to examine the Scriptural evidence she cites in support of it, and uses to determine the color and shape of the gaps, like a puzzle. (Boy, puzzles are a versatile metaphor, like I talked about here.) Because if you misunderstand, distort, or overlook the pieces of the puzzle you have, as I believe the Church has and does, your conclusion about what the missing pieces look like will also be off and you’ll be trimming and forcing them to fit and the big picture will be a big mess.

Some pieces purportedly of the post-passing puzzle are pretending imposters. (I love peas.) The Catholic Church uses as primary support for Purgatory a passage in an Old Testament apocryphal book that appears to substantiate her belief in an intermediary state between earthly life and final judgment during which sins can be “fully blotted out,” as well as the belief that praying and paying for sacrifices to be offered for them can be effectual in their being “released from their sin.” But the book is an imposter of inspiration. The collection of books that have found their way into the Catholic Old Testament but which Protestants rightly exclude and label the Apocrypha, are deemed as uninspired by God for a number of reasons. And none more convincing than the fact that they were never part of the Hebrew canon. Catholics know this, and they also know that the apostle Paul taught that “the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” (Romans 3:2) Yet because they teach that divine truth subsists in the Catholic Church alone, they can claim things like: “Because Catholicism is true, Christ’s Church, and not the Jews, possessed the authority and divine guidance to discern the Old Testament canon.” (1)

The well-referenced article here describes and defends the multiple arguments against the inspiration of the Apocrypha. But I want to argue that even if the passage in question were inspired, it does not teach what the Catholic Church claims. Here it is from 2 Maccabees 12:

38 Judas rallied his army and went to the city of Adullam. As the seventh day was approaching, they purified themselves according to custom and kept the sabbath there. 39 On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his companions went to gather up the bodies of the fallen and bury them with their kindred in their ancestral tombs. 40 But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. 41 They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden. 42 Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully 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 because of the sin of those who had fallen. 43 He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; 44 for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. 46 Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.

The book is in the historical genre, so is not meant to be doctrinal instruction. Still, when the author records that “[t]he noble Judas” and his soldiers prayed for the dead men and took up a collection for “an expiatory sacrifice,” he seems to offer approval. But notice the particular belief he is affirming: “In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind.” The author’s approval was of Judas’ belief in the resurrection of the dead, demonstrated by his desire to offer prayers and sacrifices for his dead compatriots. “But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.” he goes on to say. The lesson we can take from this, I would suggest the author is saying, is that Judas rightly believed that death is not the end and God rewards those who are his. Judas’ actions regarding “the sin of those who had fallen” and the beliefs motivating them are not being affirmed here. They’re simply cited as evidence of his belief in the resurrection.

Even the footnote for this passage in the Catholic New American Bible states: “This is the earliest statement of the doctrine that prayers (v.42) and sacrifices (v.43) for the dead are efficacious. The statement is made here, however, only for the purpose of proving that Judas believed in the resurrection of the just.”

A passage from the New Testament demonstrates a similar potential for misunderstanding about what is being affirmed. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is arguing for the truth of the resurrection of the dead and where we read, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” He then goes on to present as evidence an apparent belief among the Corinthians that one could be baptized for the dead.

Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? – 1 Corinthians 15:29

It’s clear that he is not teaching baptism for the dead here, only citing it as corroborating evidence for the resurrection.

This one, scripturally spurious, doctrinally deficient, apocryphal passage in 2 Maccabees is the best the Catholic Church has in the way of Scriptural support for the doctrine of Purgatory. There are others that she force-fits into the puzzle which I won’t strain your eyeballs with today, but will address next time.

(1) The Protestant’s Dilemma, e-book edition