What Is the Bible’s View?
Are Your Loved Ones in Purgatory?
NEARLY everyone has lost loved ones in death. Probably you, too, have had this unpleasant experience. If so, you have surely wondered about the condition of the dead and whether there is any hope of seeing them alive again.
If you are a Roman Catholic you have likely been taught that many of the dead are now in “purgatory.” The Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home (1965) defines purgatory as “a place or state in which some souls are detained for a time after death before entering heaven. . . . [It is] a state of temporary punishment for those who, dying in the grace of God, are not yet entirely free from venial sins or have not yet fully paid the satisfaction due for past forgiven sins.” Those in purgatory are said to be certain of eventually getting to heaven.
Catholic authorities usually say that the punishment in purgatory is twofold: the pain of loss and the pain of sense. By “pain of loss” they mean that the souls in purgatory suffer because of being separated from God, unable to behold him directly. As to the “pain of sense,” the New Catholic Encyclopedia points out: “In the Latin Church it has been generally maintained that this pain is imposed through real fire.”
The Roman Catholic Church maintains, according to a decree of its Council of Florence (1438-1445 C.E.), that those detained in purgatory “are benefited by the suffrages of the living faithful, namely: the sacrifice of the Mass, prayers, alms and other works of piety.” Many sincere Catholics have spent considerable sums of money to provide these “suffrages” for those believed to be in purgatory.
Are your dead loved ones suffering in purgatory? Let us examine the matter in the light of Catholic translations of the Bible and recent Catholic scholarship.
Many Catholic writers have insisted that the doctrine of purgatory, though not directly mentioned, is at least implied in the Bible. The principal passage that they cite is 2 Maccabees 12:38-46, which tells of Judas Maccabaeus sending silver to Jerusalem to provide sacrifice for Jewish soldiers who had succumbed to idolatry and had died in battle. Verse 46 concludes: “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.”—The New American Bible.
However, the books of Maccabees are among the “apocrypha” and were never included in the canon of inspired Scriptures by the Jews, who “were entrusted with the words of God.” (Rom. 3:2, NAB) And verse 43 shows that Judas had, not purgatory, but “the resurrection of the dead in view.” Realizing this, the translators of the above-quoted Bible version (who are members of the Catholic Biblical Association of America) admit in a footnote that Judas’ belief was “not quite the same as, the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) concedes: “In the final analysis, the Catholic doctrine on purgatory is based on tradition, not Sacred Scripture.”
Is this tradition in agreement with the written word of God? The idea of purgatory takes for granted that man has an immortal soul that is distinct from the body and that continues in existence after the death of the body. Does the Bible teach that?
Stanley B. Marrow, a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest and Bible scholar, writes: “The notion of the soul surviving after death is not readily discernible in the Bible. The concept of the human soul itself is not the same in the O[ld] T[estament] as it is in Greek and modern philosophy.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia points out that “only with Origen [c. 184—c. 253 C.E.] in the East and St. Augustine [354-430 C.E.] in the West was the soul established as a spiritual substance and a philosophical concept formed of its nature.” The same reference work tells us that Thomas Aquinas [c. 1225-1274 C.E.] further developed the Roman Catholic doctrine about the human soul, making use of “the Aristotelian formula.” So the Catholic view of the soul is essentially derived from Greek philosophy, not the Word of God.
What do the Scriptures teach about the human soul? What happens to it at death? Stanley Marrow comments: “The soul in the O[Id] T[estament] means not a part of man, but the whole man—man as a living being. Similarly, in the N[ew] T[estament] it signifies human life: the life of an individual, conscious subject.”
Of course, if the soul means “not a part of man, but the whole man,” it is clear that when man dies the soul dies. Thus at Ezekiel 18:4 the Catholic Douay Version Bible states: “The soul that sinneth, the same shall die.” Are dead souls aware of anything? Can they experience the pain that is said to be in purgatory? Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 answers: “The dead know nothing. . . . there is neither achievement, nor planning, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in Sheol [mankind’s common grave] where you are going.” (The Jerusalem Bible) How comforting for those still alive on earth to know that their dead loved ones are not suffering in any way!
But in addition to this, the Bible holds out the hope of a resurrection for the dead. (John 5:28; Acts 24:15) This does not mean merely a “resurrection of the body,” to be reunited with an immaterial, immortal soul, for, as we have seen, the Bible does not divide man up that way. Commenting on the real meaning of resurrection, the New Catholic Encyclopedia says:
“The Biblical notion of the resurrection is in no way comparable to the Greek idea of immortality. . . . In the Biblical framework of ideas, the whole person falls into the power of death; and, if there is any possibility of deliverance from its power, then the formulation of such a possibility would have to be not in terms of the natural immortality of the soul but in the affirmation of a belief in a supernatural deliverance of the whole person from the implacable dominion of death.” [Italics ours]
To what place will the dead be resurrected? A limited number, a “hundred and forty-four thousand, who have been purchased from the earth,” will participate in “the first resurrection,” which will mean going to heaven, where “they will be priests of God and Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.” (Apocalypse [Revelation] 14:3; 20:5, 6, Confraternity version) However, the majority of the human dead will return to life right here on earth with opportunity to continue alive forever in paradise restored earth wide.—Rev. 20:11-13; Ps. 37:11, 29 [36:11, 29, Douay], Luke 23:43; Rev. 21:3, 4; 1 Cor. 15:50.
No, your dead loved ones are not suffering in purgatory, but are unconscious, awaiting the resurrection. This hope is made all the more grand in that Bible chronology and prophecy indicate that the thousand-year reign of Christ, during which billions of human dead will return to life on earth, will begin within this generation.—Matt. 24:3-14, 34; Rev. 6:1-8.