How could corrupt High Priests like Annas and Caiaphas enter into God’s presence in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur? Why didn’t they die in the attempt?
The short answer is that God did not demand personal purity for this function—only ritual purity!
Annas and Caiaphas were certainly corrupt, but they were not the most corrupt of high priests by a long shot. They were political appointees whose loyalties were divided between Rome, the nation of Israel, Torah and their own ambitions. Among earlier high priests, some bought their appointments, and others killed for them. Some were motivated by absolutely nothing other than personal gain. Though some high priests were clearly “better” than others, none was free from some degree of corruption. Indeed, if the high priestly office required total purity, no human being would have survived an entry into the Holy of Holies. More importantly, their ministrations on behalf of the people would have been of no effect. In fact, no priestly sacrifice or function could work!
The essence of Jewish and Christian existence is that, in our fallenness and corruption, nothing we do on our own can meet God’s standards.
Sometimes, the best we can do is to follow a check list. Leviticus 16 describes an elaborate set of ritual preparations that the cohen hagadol, or high priest, had to accomplish before entering the Most Holy Place (the Holy of Holies). If he correctly accomplished each and every step in exactly the way scripture required, then he would survive his encounter with God and would atone for the sins of the nation for another year, no matter how much evil was in his heart. If his preparations erred in any manner whatsoever, he would die behind the veil and atonement would fail. We have no evidence in scripture or history that any high priest did die in the Holy of Holies. That is not too surprising given the care that each high priest and his attendants took to assure that no mistakes were made.
This once again illustrates a truth that we see over and over again in scripture: that God is able to, and completely willing to, accomplish His purpose even at the hands of fallen people.