Should Evangelicals Believe in Purgatory?

Walls

A Review of Jerry L. Walls’ Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama (Brazos Press, 2015). Reviewed by Jerry M. Ireland

This excellent text by Jerry L. Walls, professor of philosophy and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, is a more popular-level treatment of his trilogy on hell, purgatory and heaven, which emerged from his PhD dissertation at Notre Dame (p. 16). His basic argument can be summed up as follows: Heaven is necessary in order for life to have real meaning. Hell is necessary in order for there to truly be libertarian free will. Finally, purgatory is a logical possibility and even likelihood that flows from an optimal view of God’s goodness and mercy. Surely, most evangelicals will heartily affirm the first two of these propositions, but at the very least, raise an eyebrow at the last. So, the crucial question is, does Walls make a solid case for purgatory, one that can or even should be accepted by evangelicals?

In what follows, I will briefly argue, first, that Walls has made an intriguing case for a recovered doctrine of purgatory that is compatible with orthodox doctrines of God and eschatology. Second, I will argue that Walls has in this book presented an interesting enough case that many readers (myself included) will be inclined to study these matters further. That said, though, let me clarify one point. I have here described Walls’s argument as “an intriguing case,” and “interesting enough.” However, these, for me, do not add up to entirely convincing. To say something is compatible with orthodoxy doesn’t mean that it is orthodox. For me, the jury is still out, and here’s why.

Walls’ discussion of purgatory centers around a couple of interrelated ideas. First, he argues that the concept of purgatory fits well with the Christian doctrine of sanctification (ch. 4). Specifically, he argues that most protestants believe that since perfection is a necessary condition for entering God’s presence, God will perfect humans instantly upon death. Walls though prefers a sanctification model of purgatory (versus a satisfaction model; p. 98). To make his case, he leans heavily (perhaps too heavily), on C. S. Lewis, who rejected the idea of imputed righteousness and understood purgatory as a necessary period of purification in preparation for entering the presence of God (p. 110). It is “the transformation of our character” as we open ourselves to divine love. The general idea here is that love demands contrition and a genuine desire to love God more fully, and this can only be realized if one consciously and willingly moves and allows themselves to be moved by God in that direction. On this view, the process of sanctification is as vital after death as it is before.

The reason that I am intrigued but not quite convinced is two-fold. First, I think there needs to be more interaction with the biblical text on this issue. Though, I think Walls is correct to note that the Bible does not rule out the possibility of purgatory understood in this way, there does seem to a good bit of speculation at work. For example, when the word “perhaps” is repeated five times in one paragraph (p. 115-116), I’m inclined to think that we are on tenuous ground. Granted this paragraph is not the heart of Walls’ argument, but it well sums up the essence of it. Second, the talk of “process” to me raises the question of whether time itself and the concepts of both instantaneity and process can even be made sense of in any real way, when we are talking about the things that transpire after death. In other words, I wonder if Walls is not looking at non-temporality through a temporal lens and thereby drawing false conclusions. I don’t know that he is, and I would be the first to admit that the philosophy of time is a bit outside of my wheelhouse. But all of this is simply to say that the text has raised a number of questions for me both exegetically and philosophically that are not answered. Perhaps they are (I hope!) in his trilogy.

Beyond this provocative and thoughtful discussion of purgatory, though, Walls raises another issue that is worthy of at least consideration. Specifically, he argues that salvation might be possible even after death. Essentially, Walls puts forth the idea that if purgatory as he has described it exists, then it seems logical and consistent to assume that God could allow for some to repent and be saved, even after death. He again here turns to C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. He makes use, as he often does in this text, of Lewis’s claim that the door to hell is locked from the inside. That is, those who will spend eternity in hell are those who refuse at every opportunity to turn toward God. They are in hell not because they have been forced to be there, but because they have chosen to be there. Central here is the idea that God will afford each person a genuine opportunity to fully understand and respond to the Gospel. But perhaps some, during their lifetime are too emotionally handicapped, for example, to have been able to respond to God’s grace. Does it not seem logical, asks Walls, that God might give them an opportunity after death? Essentially, this argument for Walls is built on the belief that God will afford every person “optimal grace,” and that we only have to look around us to realize that some have not experienced optimal grace during their earthly life.

As someone who has lost a family member whose eternal destiny was uncertain at the time of his death, I find myself hoping that Walls is right on this. But, again, I’m not fully convinced because his argument seems to presume that C. S. Lewis, on whom Walls depends heavily, is correct, without much critical assessment of his theological assumptions. For instance, some have accused Lewis of having a more platonic view of the afterlife than a biblical view and Walls simply does not address this. Again, I would hope that these issues are addressed in his more scholarly tomes, but some minimal discussion of these issues here would have been helpful. Plus, if he hopes to convince evangelicals, Walls will need to build his case on the positive statements in Scripture about the afterlife, and not on what is ambiguous.

To conclude, any book that encourages evangelicals to dig a little deeper is one that must be counted a roaring success. And this book does that on multiple levels. I suspect in the near future I will purchase his trilogy for that purpose. On the whole, I heartily recommend this text for those wanting to explore these issues. For professors of theology, this text makes an excellent catalyst for generating lively conversations among students. It is well-written (Walls’s description of hell is worth the price of the book!; see p. 89), engaging, and even if one disagrees with Walls’s conclusions, his ideas are well worth considering and sure to stir things up.

 

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9 thoughts on “Should Evangelicals Believe in Purgatory?

  1. Hey man,

    Awesome review, I would be interested to hear some of the responses you get on a controversial review like this. I’m thinking of people who would be timid of the purgatory idea for fear of encountering a slippery slope that might lead to “love wins.” The book definitely seems to merit a look though, as we all need a dose of “high church” ideology to shake us out of our dispensational know-it-all-ism. I can say that i’m surprised to see you reviewing a book like this with such sympathy towards these ideas. From my viewpoint, which is super low on the Ag totem pole as far as theological conversations are concerned, I wouldn’t expect to find many who would seriously consider the ideas of the great divorce to hold much weight. But I am a philosopher first, so its easy for me to lean away from what’s actually written in scripture towards what I think my idea of God would do. Anyways, thanks for the intriguing review I do enjoy your posts and updates.

    God Bless,

    Matt Marlin Mozambique matt.marlin@agmd.org http://www.renewtheruined.com

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  2. Thanks for your note Matt. And, its funny you should mention “love wins.” Walls directly addresses the “this will lead to universalism” claim, and I think does a good job of responding. As to me reviewing this book, I think its good to shake the theological tree from time to time and see what rotten fruit falls to the ground. This book shakes the tree, but I”m not too sure much comes loose. Its a good read though and as a philosopher you especially would enjoy it. Hope you guys are well, and good to hear from yo friend!

  3. Jerry,
    Your book review very much intrigued me, especially considering that I have been contemplating this very issue for a few months now. Although the issue of purgatory is normally fixed within the topic of eschatology, I would suggest that the issue of purgatory has more to do with our soteriology than anything.
    For instance, Calvin and Luther’s theologies of justification saw salvation as an event, while Catholicism and Orthodoxy still see salvation as a process. The Protestant/Evangelical question “are you saved?” is a foreign one to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. RC and EO theologians would answer that question by saying “No, I am being saved, and in the Eschaton, I will be saved.” It is easy to see how this understanding of salvation easily can lend itself to a belief in purgatory.
    Eastern theologians heavily influenced C.S. Lewis, which explains why this author uses him often in this conversation. However, I am with you in agreeing that there must be strong biblical support in order to convince evangelicals. Nonetheless, if one compares the past, present, and future tenses of the descriptions of salvation in these verses (Eph. 2:5,8, 2 Tim. 1:9, Tit. 3:5; Rom, 5:91 Thess. 5:9-10, 1 Pet. 1:5; and 1 Cor. 1:18, 15:1-2, 2 Cor. 2:15) it might open a doorway for more conversation.
    Further, I believe that the issue of purgatory also can in conversation with any theology of religious pluralism. The three camps on this issue (“exclusivism,” “inclusivism,” and “pluralism”) all attempt to explain who can be saved and by what means. Those who classify themselves as “inclusivist” try to pave a “middle way” by asserting that the Spirit can work through anyone and anything to draw those to salvation who will never be afforded an opportunity to hear the gospel. However, inclusivist often times limit these opportunities to hear the gospel to this lifetime, therefore (in my opinion) take too much leeway and assert that people can be saved through other religions. I believe one can be an inclusivist by asserting that beyond this world people can be afforded that opportunity, by having an understanding of the past, present, and future nature of salvation. I have recently thought about this possibility as God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).
    The reality is that Scripture does not speak about the afterlife as much as we would like for it to. However, in my opinion, the scriptures do speak to the fact that salvation is more than event, but an ever-unfolding process. I think in order for a strong case to be built for purgatory among evangelicals, evangelicals are going to have to see salvation as both an event and a process. This will open up the door for more conversation.
    Now, that said, I am not “sold” on purgatory, but do believe that it can be a viable option in line with orthodoxy.
    Just some thoughts! …and again, great review!

    -Andrew

  4. Great thoughts Andrew. You’ve hit on several of the key issues, and I agree with pretty much all you have said. I agree that purgatory, especially the version described by Walls, is a soteriological issue (thus his linking it to sanctification). But I also sort of see it as one of those cross-over ideas that could extend into and informs multiple facets of the theological fabric, but especially touching on soteriology and eschatology (and indeed, aren’t those two things very much connected as well!). I think from a philosophical point of view, the idea has lots of merit. I just wish Walls had gotten me there biblically. He didn’t and so for now, as I said, I remain unconvinced (but open).

  5. Yes, I completely understand what you mean. Philosophically it is much easier to swallow than biblically. I too remain open, but not fully convinced. You have me interested in his trilogy, which I hope to now look further into… which is of course, what a good book review does.

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