Ask a Franciscan

Purgatory and Praying for the Dead

A Christian friend says that the Bible contains no references to purgatory. What is the basis for the Church’s teaching about this? Why do Catholics pray for the dead?

In 2 Maccabees 12:38-46, Judas Maccabee orders that sacrifices be offered in the Temple in Jerusalem for slain Jewish soldiers who had worn pagan amulets (good-luck charms).

Some people have seen this story as biblical justification for the teaching on purgatory. That certainly overstates the author’s intention. If, however, those Jewish soldiers did something wrong by wearing pagan amulets, why offer sacrifices on their behalf?

The two Books of Maccabees are probably not in your friend’s Bible because they were originally written in Greek. During Jesus’ lifetime, some Jewish people regarded these books as inspired by God.

About 60 years after Jesus’ death, however, rabbis at Jamnia in Palestine drew up the list (canon) of the Scriptures used by Jewish people to this day. That shorter list includes only works composed in Hebrew, excluding the two Books of Maccabees, five other books and parts of the Books of Daniel and Esther.

For centuries, Eastern and Western Christians accepted as inspired the longer list. When Martin Luther translated the Bible, he used the shorter list. Sometimes, these seven books are printed in Protestant Bibles as “Deutero-canonical” or “Apocrypha.”

The New Testament and early Christian writings offer some evidence for purgatory. In 2 Timothy 1:18, St. Paul prays for Onesiphorus, who has died. The earliest mention of prayers for the dead in public Christian worship is by the writer Tertullian in 211 A.D.

The question of purgatory and praying for the dead was a major issue between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century. The Council of Trent’s 1563 decree about purgatory reaffirmed its existence and the usefulness of prayers for the deceased, yet it cautioned against “a certain kind of curiosity or superstition…” about it.

The Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory reflects its understanding of the communion of saints. We are connected to the saints in heaven, the saints-in-waiting in purgatory and other believers here on earth. Prayers for the deceased are not a means of buying their way out of purgatory.

The Catholic Church’s teaching about purgatory (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1030-32) says that all sin, unfortunately, has a life of its own and may have bad effects even after the sinner repents. Sincere repentance includes a desire to repair the damage done by one’s sins. That may or may not be complete before the person dies.

When the world ends at the Final Judgment, there will be only two possibilities: heaven and hell. We who celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection over sin and death look forward to sharing in that victory, and we pray that our beloved dead may do the same.

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6 thoughts on “Purgatory and Praying for the Dead”

  1. I believe that one’s fate is sealed at the moment of death. If purgatory was real & a person who had not repented had a 2nd chance, why would God have had His Son go through the crucifixion for our sins? He gave the supreme sacrifice, His beloved Son. It is up to each of us to make our decision. I wouldn’t want my salvation to be dependent on someone else who may or may not pray for me.

    1. This is a really common misunderstanding. Purgatory is not a “2nd chance”. Purgatory is seen as a purification that is gone through before heaven because nothing unclean can exist in heaven. There is no purgatory for those who go to hell and those in purgatory are guaranteed heaven. We pray that those in purgatory may speedily and painlessly pass through on their way to heaven.

  2. I agree with Debra, One gets no second chances after their eyes closes in death. One either goes to Heaven or Hell.
    You must know your a sinner who cannot enter into Heavens glory and accept the finished work that Christ did on the cross in your behalf. Repenting of their sins, knowing they cannot gain Heaven by their works- believing Christ came down to earth, died, burried and rose again for the sins you have committed. Knowing and BELIEVING this, you ask Christ to save you. Accepting the death of Christ in your place and asking Christ to be your personal saviour

    Knowing HE took your sins to the cross once and for all. Not once and then purgatory.
    What sins that you commit allows you to go to this place called purgatory ? Can you show me from the WORD of GOD a list of those sins ? I’m pretty sure you can’t shoe me chapter and verse.

    The bottom line is Christ Died ONCE for all our sins. If you believe in purgatory that’s fine and it’s your decision however one takes a pretty large gamble with where you spend eternity by doing so. After death there are no second chances.

    1. If you are saying that one who trusts the church and its views on a doctrine that has been around for thousands of years is going to hell, you need to look in the mirror, my friend. Martin Luther, with his reformation, did more to damage church teaching than anyone in history. It’s a shame so many follow him down this dark road.

    2. Why are you arguing against St. Paul? He’s the one who wrote that many will need to be purged before entering heaven, “as through fire”.
      Purgatory isn’t and never was about escaping Hell, it’s about “nothing unclean” passing through the “pearly gates”. Every believer will have something to be purged since as John tells us no one is without sin,

      The only people who wouldn’t need purging would be the ones without sin — and they don’t exist.

  3. “When Martin Luther translated the Bible, he used the shorter list.”

    That’s false — Luther translated the whole thing, and it was all in every “Luther Bible” up until about 1880. The Deuterocanonical books were either between the two Testament collections or at the very end, depending on the publisher. I’ve seen (and handled only with surgical gloves!) a Luther Bible from before the King James translation was done; it had wooden front and back and a heavy leather spine, and there were several thin leather subdividers between the Old Testament books, the Deuterocanonical books, and the New Testament books, all on paper thicker than in a modern hard-back book (and with actual gold leaf for the first word of each book) — it was all there, nothing missing — not “shorter list”. Luther Bibles were in print before the Council of Trent when Rome officially put the Deuterocanonical books on the same standing as the rest.

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