Hot Debate, Lukewarm Trail of Evidence

The old joke among Protestants, says author Gary R. Habermas, is that Catholics have finally published a book called "What the Bible Says About Purgatory." But if you open it up, the pages are blank.

Catholic scholars concede their case is circumstantial. But they do cite several intriguing passages:

* Paul's first letter to the Corinthians hints at a post-mortem scenario in which believers' lives are tested by fire. "If someone's work burns, he will suffer loss," the apostle wrote. "The person will be saved, but only as one fleeing through fire."

* Jesus, too, offered a possible clue when he said in Matthew's Gospel that anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven "either in this age or in the age to come," which appears to imply that some sins can be forgiven after death. Says historian Alan Bernstein: "That seems like a lot of weight to put on that sentence, but Jesus must have known what he was saying."

* The most hotly debated text comes from the second book of Maccabees. In it, a group of Jewish soldiers pray that God will "blot out" the sin of some fallen comrades who had worn pagan amulets. Later, a sacrifice was made in "atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin."

Maccabees first came under question in the 4th Century. Although the book had been part of the Greek Old Testament quoted by Paul and other New Testament writers, St. Jerome wanted to delete it from the Bible because it didn't appear in Hebrew manuscripts from the same era.

Jerome was overruled by St. Augustine and two regional synods of bishops, but his arguments were revived in the 16th Century by Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers, says George Saint-Laurent, a religious studies professor at Cal State Fullerton.

After Protestants declared Maccabees and six other Old Testament books unfit for inclusion in the Bible, the Catholic Council of Trent formally endorsed the 4th-Century synods' decision to leave them in, Saint-Laurent says.

Eastern Orthodox churches, which split with Rome in 1054, also pray for the dead and accept Maccabees, says the Rev. Milton Efthimiou of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. But they don't believe in Purgatory.

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