The Roman Catholic church has taught the doctrine of “purgatory” since the late fifth or early sixth century. Gregory the Great, who served as “pope” from 590 A.D. to 604 A.D., was the first to officially defined the doctrine. Final agreement within the Roman Catholic church was finally reached in 1439 after months of debate at the Council of Florence.
Catholicism teaches that besides heaven and hell, “there exists in the next life a middle state of temporary punishment, allotted for those who have died in venial sin” (Gibbons 210). In other words, those who die in a state of perfection go on to heaven, but those who die in a state of sin go either to hell or purgatory, depending on the type of unforgiven sin of which they are guilty. See, the Catholic church makes a distinction between “mortal” and “venial” sins. We can roughly think of mortal sins as “big sins” and venial sins as “little sins.” Those who die with mortal sin go directly to hell, but those who die in venial sin go to purgatory – a temporary place of punishment. A person stays there until their “little sin” has been purged away, at which point the person can go on to heaven. (You can see why this doctrine is popular; it provides a false sense of hope to those with loved ones who have died in impenitent sin.)
Your suffering and duration in purgatory depends on your guilt. Some stay only for a few hours and their suffering is relatively mild. Others may stay for hundreds of years and their suffering is just short of the suffering they would experience in hell.
While those in purgatory cannot help themselves, they can be helped by the faithful on earth. Gifts or services to the Catholic church can earn you a “partial indulgence” (Pope Paul VI), coupled with prayers by the priests and masses by the relatives of the victim in purgatory, which can in turn shorten one’s stay in purgatory.
Built Upon A Shaky Foundation
The Catholic “proof text” for the doctrine of purgatory comes from 2 Maccabees 12:39-45. This is one of the apocryphal books in the Catholic Bible. “Apocrypha” denotes “religious books inferior in authority and worth to the Scriptures of the OT and NT” (Davies 180). None of the apocryphal books are listed among the 66 books of the Bible today because they were “judged as unworthy and not authoritative by the officials of the early church” (Youngblood 85). There are 14 Jewish books that were rejected by Judaism and subsequently rejected by the early church as non-canonical. These include 1 & 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, The Additions of Esther, The Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, The Letter of Jeremiah, The Prayer of Azaria and the Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, The Prayer of Manasseh, and 1 & 2 Maccabees, and The Misshapen Toe of Sir Walter Wiggins (I may have made that one up).
We reject these books for several reasons:
(1) They were never accepted as inspired or authoritative by Judaism, and thus were “never included in the Hebrew canon of the Old Testament” (Lightfood 167).
(2) They were not accepted by Jesus or His apostles. The New Testament authors, the apostles, quoted from “a broad cross-section of Old Testament documents but never quote from the Apocrypha” (Blomberg 49).
(3) They do not possess the qualities of inspiration. Many describe fictitious events, contain geographical errors, their histories detail chronological mistakes, and sometimes even contradict themselves and the Old Testament.
Contradiction & Insult
But even if you read 2 Maccabees 12, there is nothing that speaks of an intermediate state of suffering for those who are suffering for their venial sins, awaiting a gracious act by a person still living on earth. It does mention praying “for the dead,” but you must perform some silly looking hermeneutical contortions to conclude the doctrine of purgatory.
Besides, the reason Judas Maccabeus led the Jewish forces to pray for the dead was so they could make “atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:45). This contradicts the New Testament, which clearly teaches that Christ alone can make final atonement for all men (Romans 5:11, KJV). What a cheapening of the blood of Christ!
Furthermore, it must be noted that the individuals in 2 Maccabees 12 who died were guilty of idolatry. According to Catholicism, idolatry is a mortal sin (Wilhelm). If you die guilty of a mortal sin, you go directly to hell and prayers and gifts cannot save you. Yet this passage is used more than any other passage to prove the doctrine of purgatory. What a contradiction!
We reject the teaching of purgatory because it is not found in the Bible. Catholics often make attempts to prove the idea of purgatory by pointing to a few New Testament texts, but the Bible does not mention “purgatory” nor the concept. The only way to believe in purgatory is by disbelieving the Bible itself.
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Blomberg, Craig L. Can We Still Believe The Bible?. Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, MI, 2014.
Davies, Thomas Witton. “Apocrypha.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Ed. James Orr. Vol. 4. Chicago: Howard-Severance Co., 1915.
Gibbons, Cardinal James. The Faith of our Fathers. 110th Ed. John Murphy Company: Baltimore, Maryland, 1917.
Lightfoot, Neil R. How We Got The Bible. 3rd Ed. MJF Books: New York, 2003.
Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences, Chapter 5. Accessed 7 Oct 2015. <http://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/P6INDULG.HTM>
Wilhelm, Joseph. “Idolatry.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Accessed 7 Oct. 2015. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07636a.htm>.
Youngblood, Ronald F. New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1995