Dialogue: Purgatory & 2 Maccabees 12:39-45

Dialogue: Purgatory & 2 Maccabees 12:39-45 November 8, 2020

Luke Wayne has been a writer and researcher for the large Protestant online forum CARM since January of 2016. He is an elder at the Mission Church in South Jordan, Utah and holds a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist College and a Masters in Divinity from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I’m responding to his article, “Purgatory and 2 Maccabees 12:39-45” (1-30-17). Luke’s words will be in blue.


[P]urgatory 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. . . . Such a doctrine would seem to imply that Christ’s sufferings were insufficient to sanctify the believer, . . . 

I don’t see how it nullifies the sufficiency of Christ’s work for us, seeing that we all have to be sinless to enter heaven:

Revelation 21:27 (RSV) But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

The Bible is full of the motif of being purified, purged, and washed clean (the central notion of purgatory). I have found 50 such passages. Protestants also agree with Bible passages having to do with the judgment seat of Christ, which is for the believers or the saved / elect only, and the idea of the works of those who are saved being tested by fire:

1 Corinthians 3:11-15 For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. [12] Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — [13] each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. [14] If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. [15] If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Matthew 16:27 For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.

Romans 14:10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God;

2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.

Ephesians 6:8 knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.

So it seems to me that Catholics and Protestants can fully, wholeheartedly agree that one will be literally without sin (not just declared to be) when they enter heaven. We only differ as to whether a process takes place to accomplish this, or whether it is more or less instantaneous. In any event, neither Catholic nor Protestant eschatological doctrine in this regard takes away from Christ’s redemptive, salvific, justifying work on the cross on our behalf, in the slightest.

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.

Luke’s (rather clever but fallacious) argument is that this passage (even if it is granted to be part of Scripture: which the Protestant doesn’t grant) doesn’t even affirm the Catholic notion of purgatory in the first place. He notes that the passage implies that each dead soldier was guilty of idolatry:

2 Maccabees 12:39-42a On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers. [40] Then under the tunic of every 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 why 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 prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. . . .

Luke develops his argument based on the ostensible serious sins committed in this instance, and alleged Catholic internal inconsistencies:

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 be justly punished in hell.

It’s what he then concludes, that doesn’t necessarily logically follow, according to the Bible, logic, and Catholic teaching:

Roman Catholic teaching regards willful idolatry committed in full knowledge of God’s moral law to be a mortal sin.

“Full knowledge” is the key phrase here. Whether they were condemned to hell or not would depend on whether all these soldiers had “full knowledge” of their evil.

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.

We can’t know that for sure. If we know anything from the long, sordid history of the ancient Jews, as recorded in the Old Testament, we know that they often descended into periods of disobedience to God’s law, and the Mosaic law. Yes, it was often willful disobedience. But must it be thought to be so in every single case? No; we simply can’t know that. And the Old Testament frequently refers to lack of “knowledge”:

Hosea 4:1, 6 . . . There is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land; . . . [6] My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; . . .

Psalm 82:5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; . . .

Isaiah 5:13 Therefore my people go into exile for want of knowledge; . . .

Isaiah 45:20 . . . They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, . . .

Isaiah 56:10 His watchmen are blind, they are all without knowledge; . . .

Jeremiah 10:14 Every man is stupid and without knowledge; every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols; for his images are false, and there is no breath in them. (cf. 14:18; 51:17)

In the New Testament also, it’s plainly taught that we are judged (and are “culpable”) based on the extent of our knowledge: which is part and parcel and directly related to the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sin:

Luke 12:47-48 And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. [48] But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.

Luke 23:34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” . . .

John 9:41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

John 19:11 . . . he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.

1 Timothy 1:13 . . . I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,

Hebrews 10:26 For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,

James 3:1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.

All of this would apply to these dead men who had idols on their bodies. Some may have been ignorant of what the Law taught. This was a massive problem throughout Jewish history. Some may not have accepted idolatry with a full consent of their will (which is a Catholic requirement for mortal sin to be subjectively present, as well as objectively. Failing those things, they may not have been condemned to hell at all, and would be exactly the sort of person who is saved “only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15), and is thus fit to be prayed for after death, according to the Catholic biblical rationale for such prayers. But they cannot all be said to be damned, which would preclude prayers; and this is Luke’s argument, which is now shown, I believe, to be fallacious and unbiblical.

It’s completely in accord with Jewish practice, that these men should have been prayed for, just as Moses prayed for his people and even made atonement for them, even in cases of very serious sin and rebellion indeed, including the sin of idolatry (Ex 32:30-32; Num 14:19-23; 16:46-48; 25:1-13). After all, St. Paul prayed for a dead man, too:

2 Timothy 1:16-18 “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, [17] but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me – [18] may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day – and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.” (cf. 4:19)

And the Bible refers to what I believe is fasting and other penitential works on behalf of the dead:

1 Corinthians 15:29 “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?”

Luke contends that the dead soldiers were all damned because of this passage:

2 Maccabees 12:42b . . . And 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.

He neglects to differentiate between judgment and the individual salvific fate of each person. For example, when King Saul was judged by God for his sins, by losing a battle and being brought to a place where he decided to kill himself, his son Jonathan, who was righteous and a soulmate of David, was also killed. He was being loyal to his father. But the extent of sin of these two men was vastly different. We know that when entire countries are judged, it doesn’t follow that there are no righteous people in them. Thus, the prophet Jeremiah was also part of the judgment on Israel, when Babylon conquered it in the 6th century BC: even though he had warned them for some 60 years of the impending invasion.

Therefore, in this instance, the Bible is making a general statement: idolatry is bad and will bring judgment. It doesn’t follow that each individual was culpable and fully guilty, subjectively, for the sin of idolatry in its fullest, willful sense. This being the case, they can be prayed for. And God can apply prayers backwards in time, because He is outside of time (something that many Protestants agree with). Therefore, the prayers for these men cold be conceptualized as being applied to then before they died: that each would repent of idolatry. In this case, it would not be “prayer for the dead” per se, but prayer for dead men, before they died.

It still remains for Luke to explain how the survivors were “praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out.” They must have believed that forgiveness was in some sense still available to these men, and it could have been on the basis which I have explained: either differential culpability or “retroactive prayer.” For the Old Testament Jews believed that a condemned, damned man was beyond prayer, just as Christians do:

Job 7:9 As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up;

Psalm 89:48 . . . Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? (cf. 49:14; Prov 30:16)

Isaiah 14:11 Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, the sound of your harps; maggots are the bed beneath you, and worms are your covering.

Isaiah 38:18 . . . I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years.

The rest of the passage under consideration is fully in accord with the above understanding, but doesn’t make sense under Luke’s assumption that all the men were damned:

2 Maccabees 12:43-45 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, that they might be delivered from their sin. [note the similarity with 1 Corinthians 15:29 above]

Luke contends that the men do this 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.” He’s right about the first clause (it means they weren’t regarded as damned), but wrong about the second. They would not have understood purgatory, as the afterlife at that time was only dimly understood or defined. But the hopes of a resurrection, leading to prayer on their behalf, is consistent with the notion of a middle state: not damnation nor ultimate salvation. And this is consistent with purgatory and also the scenario of a divided Hades / Sheol which was taught by Jesus in Luke 16. It’s not consistent with all the men being damned, because then it would make no sense to pray or atone for them at all.

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.

Exactly! In precisely the same manner and spirit, Catholics pray for immaterial souls to be delivered to purgatory, and to heaven, where they will receive resurrected, glorified bodies.

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.

Indeed; just as Catholics pray for the dead, like Paul did (2 Tim 1:16-18), and do penance for them (1 Cor 15:29). It’s simply the continuation of praying for each other on earth.

His hope was not to shorten their stay in some form of purgatory but rather to mediate their release from sin, death, and hell.

I see no difference between “that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Mac 12:45) and Catholics praying for the deliverance of a soul from purgatory. In both instances the time of suffering is shortened. No essential difference whatsoever . . .


Photo credit: [public domain / PxFuel]


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