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.

 

Advertisements

Book Review: Global Evangelicalism

global evangelicalismLewis, Donald M. and Richard V. Pierard, Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History, and Culture in Regional Perspective. Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2014. Reviewed by Jerry M. Ireland.

Its rare to read an edited volume and find very little to criticize. This, though, is precisely the case with Global Evangelicalism. This text quite simply is an excellent introduction to the varied and complex nature of modern evangelicalism. In fact, I’m somewhat hesitant to label it an introductory work, because most introductory works tend to oversimplify. This work does not. Instead, it underscores the complex issues involved in formulating an evangelical identity, historically, theologically, and culturally. In doing so, it highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the movement, and offers ample fodder for scholarly and practical reflection on the future of evangelicalism.

Rather than summarize each of the chapters, I shall instead focus my review on what are the important strengths and weaknesses of the work. And I will do this in light of the author’s stated goals of helping both insiders and outsiders better understand the global and diverse nature of evangelicalism.

Perhaps the best part of this work is the broad sweep it offers of the global evangelical movement. The editors have rightly chosen to extend their gaze beyond the shores of the United States and Great Britain, and included essays by some of the leading scholars of evangelicalism from across the globe, including preeminent scholars such as René Padilla and Ogbu Kalu. One might think, though, that such a broad sweep would lack in depth and detail, but that is not the case. Yes, the authors tend to present the usual suspects on evangelical definitions, theology, and history (for example, Bebbington’s quadrilateral), but they also offer some insightful and less well-known critiques, such as Kalu’s observation regarding the way in which evangelical shortcomings in West Africa contributed to the spread of Islam in that area (chapter 5).

I also found Donald M. Lewis’s chapter on “Globalization, Religion, and Evangelicalism” (chapter 3) especially insightful. His discussion of “glocalization” and the closely associated concept of “globalization from below” help show Christianity’s adaptability, its cross-cultural power, and ability to influence society at every level, and to do so not by destroying the receptor culture, but building on them and adorning them, as Lewis points out regarding the Karen people of Burma who value Christianity’s culture preserving ability. Also, Lewis highlights that some of the very things that make evangelicalism difficult to define, such as the lack of a single holy language or precise holy place, make evangelicalism highly adaptable, allowing for constant growth and expansion. In addition, missions leaders will find this chapter enlightening as it underscores the need for both urban evangelistic strategies and social activism, in light of the reality of increasingly “global cities.”

If there is a weakness to this work, it would be that I found myself wanting more, especially in regards to part III, “Issues in Evangelical Encounters With Culture.” The issue of evangelicalism and culture is, in my view, the arena for which the future is most uncertain, and so it would have been nice to have more than the two excellent chapters in this section on ecumenism and gender. For example, given that marriage equality and LGBT issues are among the thorniest issues facing evangelicals not only in the west but also in Africa and other parts of the world as well, an article on this topic would have greatly added to the volume. Also, though several chapters reference evangelicalism’s response to the poor and the need of social concern, an in-depth discussion of the prioritism-holism debate would have helped the unaware reader better understand one of the more divisive issues among evangelicals.

But these are very minor critiques, and without a doubt, the authors could not have addressed everything. Overall, this text makes an excellent resource on the global nature, unity, diversity, history, and potential of evangelicalism. For the uninitiated, it provides insightful scholarly reflection from some of the most knowledgeable scholars on this topic. For those who have studied evangelicalism in some depth already, this text too will prove valuable as it implicitly hints at numerous avenues for further scholarly study. For example, when Padilla warns of the dangers inherent in rapid numerical expansion in Latin America, and of growth apart from a biblical understanding of the kingdom of God and the mission of God, I find myself compelled to consider this statement in the African context and in reference to the often lauded growth of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity there.

In sum, I highly recommend this text to academics, missionaries, and to non-Christians who desire a more accurate and robust understanding of evangelicalism around the world. And, I would hope that many of evangelicalism’s critics would also read this work, as it would surely temper some of the more unbalanced and ahistorical accusations leveled against it.

Disclosure: Thanks to Alisse Wissman at IVP Academic for providing a review copy of this text. However, the opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.