Also Available in:



Editor’s note: this is an extended reference item (ref. 6) for the author’s article Martin Luther: the monk who shook the world.

Purgatory refers to the papal doctrine that after death the souls of Christians go to a state of existence between Heaven and Hell called purgatory,1 where they undergo purification (or purging) “so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven”.2 The concept gradually developed over the first millennium,3 and then the medieval Western Church formulated the doctrine of Purgatory “especially at the Councils of Florence [1439] and Trent [1547].”2

The first reference claimed for this doctrine is the account in 2 Maccabees ch. 12 of the occasion (c. 161 BC) when Judas Maccabeus discovered that some of the Jewish soldiers whom he commanded had died in battle while wearing pagan amulets “sacred to the idols of Jamnia” (v. 40). Ch. 12 continues:

“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; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 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. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:43–46).4

Written in Koinē Greek, 2 Maccabees is an apocryphal book, meaning that it was never part of the canon of Jewish Scriptures (that we call the Old Testament), because the Hebrew rabbis (teachers) did not consider it (or the other Maccabees books 1, 3, and 4) to be divinely inspired—and evidently, neither did its author.5 Hebrew scholar E.J. Young writes about the Apocrypha in general:

“There are no marks in these books which would attest a divine origin … both Judith and Tobit contain historical, chronological and geographical errors. The books justify falsehood and deception and make salvation to depend upon works of merit … . Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon inculcate a morality based upon expediency. The Wisdom of Solomon teaches the creation of the world out of pre-existent matter (Wisd. 11.17). Ecclesiasticus teaches that the giving of alms makes atonement for sin (Eccs. 3.30). In Baruch it is said that God hears the prayers of the dead (Bar. 3.4), and in I Maccabees there are historical and geographical errors.”6

2 Maccabees focuses on the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Greek King of the Seleucid Empire; the sobriquet ‘Epiphanes’ had the blasphemous meaning of ‘[God] manifest [in Antiochus]) and concludes with the defeat of the Syrian General Nicanor. It also records attempts by various Gentiles to steal treasure from the temple in Jerusalem, and the battles fought by Judas Maccabeus to prevent this—in the second century after Malachi and before the birth of Christ. It contains no “Thus says the Lord …”, and God did not stipulate the payment mentioned. The latter thus appears to have been a pecuniary incentive to induce the Jerusalem priests to do what the Mosaic Law did not require or allow them to do, namely offer sacrifices for the dead.

Whether anything happened in Jerusalem is not recorded. However, many of the Jerusalem priests were Sadducees (including, on occasion, the high priest (i.e. ‘the CEO’, cf. Acts 5:17). The Sadducees were strict literalists with respect to the Old Testament Law and so did not believe in the resurrection of the dead or in any afterlife, for the reason that these are not mentioned by Moses in the Pentateuch, and hence the priests were hugely unlikely to have carried out the request. For this same reason, the Sadducees rejected the oral traditions of the Pharisees.

Interestingly, in Matthew 22:23–34, Jesus first rebuked them for not accepting the rest of Scripture, then proved them wrong (about the resurrection) with an argument from the books they did accept, which He affirmed as “what was said to you by God”!

Likewise, the claim that 1 Corinthians 3:10–15 refers to purgatory is made only by changing Paul’s focus from loss of reward for works, which is clearly what Paul is talking about, to punishment of souls for sin.


An indulgence is a letter authorized by the pope, to lessen the time people spend in purgatory.7 As the Bible does not mention the concepts of purgatory or of indulgences,8 the medieval Latin Church in the West developed a doctrine of “an infinite treasury” of “the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints”, from which “satisfaction can be applied to others”,9 and since 1967 “the prayers and good works of the Virgin Mary”.10

However, sin is not acts of greater or lesser ‘deficiency in perfection’, but it is the desire of man to be totally free from the authority of God. One result of the disobedience to God of Adam and Eve (Genesis ch. 3) was that we have all been born with a sinful nature which expresses itself in our own deliberate rebellion against a holy God. Thus, because the whole human race is under God’s condemnation, we cannot initiate reconciliation. It must come from God. (See Dawkins’s dilemma: how God forgives sins.)

Good news

The good news is that God has done just that. Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, died on the Cross as our substitute to fully pay the just penalty for our sin (1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). The Bible says: “God … loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The Greek word translated “propitiation” in the KJV, NASB and ESV, and “expiation” in the RSV, is rendered “atoning sacrifice” in the NIV. It means that when the Lord Jesus died on the Cross, He was the means whereby the cost of our reconciliation with God was fully met (expiated), and God’s wrath upon us because of our sin was turned away (propitiated). See Good News.

The Apostle Paul tells believers to rejoice because we have been fully reconciled to God by Christ’s death (Romans 5:10–11; 2 Corinthians 5:18–20). And he wrote: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). On the cross, Jesus said to the penitent thief: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

So, concerning people who have repented of their sins (and hence been forgiven by God, cf. 1 John 1:9), if they should still need to pay a sin-debt to God after death, this would mean that Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross was insufficient to pay the full penalty for their sins. If there was any other way to peace with God, other than through faith in Christ alone, then Jesus died needlessly (cf. Galatians 2:21).

References and notes

  1. A “Western medieval concept not shared by Eastern Orthodoxy or other Eastern Christian churches not recognizing the primacy of the pope” (Encyclopædia Britannica: Indulgence Roman Catholicism). Return to text.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2003, #1030 and #1031. Return to text.
  3. According to historian Henry Charles Lea, A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church, Vol. 3, Lea Bros, Philadelphia, 1896, p. 310. Return to text.
  4. This edition: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 2017. The Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (in Bible Gateway) says the collection amounted to “twelve thousand drachms of silver”. Return to text.
  5. Note 2 Maccabees 15:38–39, which reads: “… I will bring my story to an end here too. If it is well written and to the point, that is what I wanted; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that is the best I could do.” I.e., the (unknown) author admits he wrote a human composition with possible flaws, thereby negating divine inspiration. Return to text.
  6. Young, E.J., “The Canon of the Old Testament,” in Henry, C.F.H. (Ed.), Revelation and the Bible, pp. 167–168, Tyndale Press, London, 1959. See also the monumental study Beckwith, R.T., The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church: and its Background in Early Judaism, Wipf & Stock, 2008. Return to text.
  7. According to historian Henry Charles Lea (ref. 3), the earliest record of a plenary indulgence was Pope Urban II’s declaration at the Council of Clermont in 1095 that he remitted all penance of persons who participated in the crusades who confessed their sins (pp. 9–10). Then, at the Lateran Council of 1215, Pope Innocent III offered plenary indulgences to those who couldn’t go but contributed “of their substance” to the effort (p. 156). (See also Fourth Lateran Council (1215), Constitutions, #71 Crusade to recover the holy Land.) The first authenticated indulgence for the dead was granted by Pope Sixtus IV in 1476 (pp. 345–46). Return to text.
  8. In particular, not in the entire book of Revelation, nor in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, where the Apostles John and Paul respectively tell us what happens after death. Return to text.
  9. Decreed by Pope Clement VI in 1343 (Catholic Encyclopedia: Indulgences, pp. 3–4) Return to text.
  10. Pope Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina (Apostolic Constitution On Indulgences), Chapter 2, #5, promulgated 1 January 1967; also Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2003, #1477. Return to text.