Maccabees lays groundwork of afterlife doctrine

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

As the leaves fall and the weather turns colder, it looks as though nature itself is dying, at least temporarily. 

It is understandable that our thoughts direct themselves to the afterlife. This weekend’s first reading — 2 Mc 7:1-2, 9-14 — then comes at an appropriate moment. 

It presents the first explicit statement of belief in the resurrection from the dead that we encounter in the Bible. 

The seven brothers willingly undergo martyrdom because they believe that God will reward them in the next life. One of them says: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him.” 

Elsewhere, the same book gives evidence of the Jewish practice of praying for the dead. Judas Maccabeus has offered a sacrifice on behalf of some dead soldiers: 

“In doing this, he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view. If he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who have gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought” (2 Mc 12:43b-45).

The early Christians continued this practice, which eventually gave rise to the doctrine of purgatory.

It is significant that here the writer is trying to make a case for the resurrection of the dead. He uses the practice of praying for the dead to prove his point, but his emphasis is upon resurrection. 

Similarly, the same book offers an example of a deceased person praying for the living: 

“Then in the same way another man appeared, distinguished by his white hair and dignity, and with an air about him of extraordinary, majestic authority. Onias then said of him, ‘This is God’s prophet Jeremiah, who loves his brethren and fervently prays for his people and their holy city” (2 Mc 15:13-14).  

Jeremiah had been dead for many years. This vision of him anticipates our belief that the saints in heaven intercede for us. Once again, this belief rests upon the foundation of the belief in the resurrection of the dead.

To summarize, the Second Book of Maccabees lays the groundwork for three doctrines concerning the afterlife: intercession by the saints in heaven, the efficacy of prayer for the dead and the resurrection of the dead. 

Of these three, the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is foundational. But even that rests in a belief in a just and merciful God. 

If God does not bring justice to us in this life, that will happen in the next.  

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