Four Views on Hell Part IV: The Case for Purgatory

In Parts One, Two, and Three of this review of the latest book in Zondervan’s terrific Counterpoint Series, Four Views on Hell, we examined the cases for the doctrines of eternal conscious torment (ECT), terminal punishment (aka annihilationism), and universal reconciliation (UR), respectively. The book’s fourth section, Jerry L. Walls’ essay on Hell and Purgatory, is not so easy to classify. Its author is Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University, who, editor Sprinkle notes, “has written three volumes on the afterlife in Christian theology, including Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation.

Purgatory, says Walls, “has been understood traditionally as a temporary abode…on the way to heaven…only for persons who die in a state of grace.” It is one answer to the question, “how is it that persons who die in a state of grace, but are less than fully perfect, are made fit for heaven?” Many Protestants, of course, believe that this happens instantaneously at the moment of death. But purgatory as the means to achieving perfection is not the exclusive property of Roman Catholics. Wells quotes Dorothy Sayers, an Anglican, who wrote that, while deathbed repentance is always an option, “the soul is now obliged, with prolonged labour and pains, and without the assistance of the body, to accomplish in Purgatory the entire process of satisfaction and purification, the greater part of which should have been carried out on earth.”

Walls observes that purgatory is thus the process of “finishing the work of sanctification.” By contrast, the Roman Catholic conception adds to this the notion that a sinner must undergo an “appropriate punishment in purgatory until God’s justice is satisfied.” Sanctification versus satisfaction. Therefore, “for the Reformers, purgatory represented nothing less than a denial that the death of Christ was sufficient to save us from the guilt of our sins and the punishment we deserve.” But, points out Wells, “to reject the satisfaction model of purgatory is not necessarily to reject the sanctification model,” which is “entirely compatible with Protestant theology.”

Biblical Support for Purgatory
There is, Walls concedes, “little explicit biblical support for the doctrine…[but it] can rightly be considered biblical in the broader sense that it is a natural implication of things that are clearly taught in Scripture.” And just what does that “little support” consist of? Walls cites  few examples, including 1 Cor. 3:11-15, which describes the fate of he who has built on the foundation laid by Christ, but not so well that his construction survives the fire that tests his work: “the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” He then suggests that this “will be a sanctifying experience for all who undergo it…[w]e will see how our choices were motivated by love of self and superficial goals rather than eternal ones. Watching the fire burn would bring the truth home to us, and as we accepted and came to terms with it, our sanctification would go forward.”

The key here is the concept of sanctification as a process, rather than as an instantaneous transformation.

C.S. Lewis as a Protestant-Friendly Doctrine of Purgatory
Walls notes that Lewis made the doctrine of purgatory “integral” to his account of core Christian beliefs. To Lewis, says Walls, the essence of Christianityis “not on being forgiven by Christ, but rather, becoming like Christ.” “There is nothing like ‘imputed righteousness’ in his thought, nor did he believe that when we are justified, all our sins, past, present and future, are ‘under the blood.’” Christ’s perfect obedience to God, “climaxing in the cross, enables and empowers us to repent and return to God…faith in the atonement…was not merely a matter of claiming forgiveness for past sins, but rather…to transform us and remake us like himself…”

Lewis’ theology, Walls points out, “is thoroughly Arminian and emphasizes our free cooperation for our salvation. There is no suggestion that grace is irresistible or sovereignly bestowed on [an elect who are thereby assured of salvation].”  Free will, while allowing the possibility of evil, “is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”  Clearly, Walls reasons, God “take our freedom very seriously…there is [thus] good reason to think he will continue to do so in the life to come until the goods that freedom makes possible are fully achieved. To put the point another way, if God can give us the goods of love, goodness, and joy unilaterally at the moment of death without our free cooperation, it is hard to see why freedom is necessary in this life to achieve these goods, particularly given all the evil that results from the misuse of freedom.”

Walls emphasizes that Lewis saw sanctification (or damnation) as resulting from a lifelong series of choices, and offers this quote, in which Lewis imagines Christ telling us “Whatever suffering it may cost you in our earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect…” [italics added].

“It takes time and experience walking the road of faith to see how deeply and thoroughly we need to be transformed and healed.” Only with hard-won experience “can we exercise the higher kind of faith” that will make us, like Christ, perfectly obedient to God. “’The job’,” Walls quotes Lewis saying, “’will not be completed in this life…’” An inescapable part of that “job,” of the process of sanctification, is pain; but pain not to “satisfy the justice of God,” but simply necessary as part of the “radical transformation we must undergo.”

Salvation by Works?
 “The doctrine of purgatory,” Walls sets forth, “underscores in emphatic terms not only that sanctification is essential to our final salvation, but so is our cooperation throughout the process…We should be under no illusion that our entrance to heaven is fully assured by justification or having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us…” Some Protestants level the charge of “works righteousness” to the doctrine of purgatory, because, says Walls, they “think of grace primarily, if not exclusively, in terms of justification…all that is required to enter heaven is to have our sins blotted out with the red ink of grace. There is no sense here at all…that heaven simply would not be heaven to a person who was not appropriately transformed to enjoy it.”

Postmortem Repentance?
Toward the end of his essay, Walls asks, “Why is repentance at the very last moment of death always accepted, but repentance a moment after death too late? …if God truly loves all persons and desires the salvation of all, would he not make certain that all persons have ample opportunity to receive his grace, even if that entails chances to receive the gospel after death?” “[I]f grace can be extended to deathbed penitents,” Walls points out, “it is hard to see a good reason why it should not be extended to postmortem penitents on the same terms.”

He quotes the Protestant theologian Donald Bloesch, “who suggests that Scripture gives us reason to believe that postmortem repentance is possible.” The passage Bloesch discusses is the rich man and Lazarus, and he writes “[t]he unbridgeable gap spoken of in Luke 16:26 is between hades and paradise, and it is a gap only in the sense that unrepentant sin constitutes a formidable barrier to salvation…[e]ven when one is in hell, one can be forgiven.”

The fundamental question, Walls affirms, is our understanding of God. “Do we really believe that God truly and deeply loves all person and desires the salvation of all?” If so, then “what damns a person is a decisive choice of evil…[which] depends on what I have called ‘optimal grace.’” This is the idea that “God will do everthing he can, short of overriding our freedom to communicate the gospel to us and elicit a positive response from each of us.” If an individual has rejected the gift of optimal grace, “that constitutes the decisive choice of evil that leads to eternal damnation.”

To complete the circle, since it is “unlikely that all persons have the best opportunity to receive salvation in this life…if God is going to supply such grace, it will have to happen in the life to come for many people.” Thus contemplating the character of God suggests that the doctrine of purgatory ought to include postmortem repentance.

Observations and Author Responses
If you’re a big fan of C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald, as I am, you are going to like Jerry Walls. Particularly considering his embracingof postmortem repentance, it seems to me that the disagreement between him and Parry is identical to that between Lewis and MacDonald; namely, whether it is even possible for a human being to forever reject God; for the gates of hell to be locked irrevocably from the inside.

Unlike Parry, whose writing reflects more of the tension between man’s free will and God’s sovereignty, Walls emphasizes man’s free will, although it’s a subtle distinction; and the reason, I think, is precisely that Walls is saying that some men will in fact choose what amounts to an eternity of conscious torment.

And, as we’ve discussed in past weeks, the problem this leaves us with is a defeat for God, who desires that none be lost, that all be saved. On the one hand, the Walls/Lewis vision of incremental decisions that lead to hardened hearts and the choice of hell over heaven resonates with me; at least on this side of the Great Divide, we all know people who have made that choice. Walls arguments against the Talbott/Parry idea that if we only know the truth, we’ll choose correctly are powerful and seem more ‘real world,’ more true to human nature; but Parry’s metanarrative of judgment followed by redemption, of a happy ending to the grand story of Scripture, is equally powerful, perhaps more so.

I love Walls’ discussion of the way sanctification and salvation are inextricably linked; that the two are a process is apparent to me from the words of Jesus in the gospels and from the consistent themes Paul sounds in his epistles. He writes eloquently of the necessity of pain as part of that process, as do both Lewis and MacDonald. No one is getting into heaven before becoming perfect; and can anyone doubt, relying on both reason and Scripture, that suffering will be involved? MacDonald in particular was emphatic that Jesus came to save us from sin, not from suffering, and asked who would want to skulk into heaven, hiding behind the “imputed” righteousness of Christ? No one will be spared the Consuming Fire that will burn away the last traces of sin; God loves us too much to do anything less.  In fact, on precisely this point, I was reminded of several passages in Michael Phillips’ book, Hell and Beyond, which is an improvisation on both Lewis’ and MacDonald’s conception of what lies in store for us after death.

Denny Burk
Burk starts out by focusing on what Walls himself admits is the weakest part of his case, the lack of direct Scriptural reference to purgatory. He also claims that “[t]he doctrine of progressive sanctification after death is deeply unbiblical too…the texts indicate an instantaneous transformation at the time of resurrection.” It seems to me true that the biblical evidence for sanctification as a process speak directly only of this side of death; and it is true that there are a couple of verses such as the ones Burk cites that speak of being transformed “in the twinkling of an eye,” but those are certainly subject to interpretation. Scripture is ambiguous on the topic, so we turn to reason and tradition; and there, Walls has more going for him than Burk.

Burk also objects to Walls’ emphasis on the “sinner’s free cooperation” in the process of sanctification, citing Philippians 3:21 as evidence that God will in fact act unilaterally to transform us. And it’s no shock that he objects to the notion of postmortem repentance, citing Hebrews 9:27. Now, I get that it’s necessary to use a sort of shorthand in these responses due to word count limitations, but neither of the two references are decisive on the subjects in question. This is where Parry’s conceptual framework is such a powerful concept. And the big picture that Burk presents is of a God that many of us do not recognize as the God revealed in Christ Jesus.

John Stackhouse
Stackhouse avoids any discussion of postmortem repentance or synergism versus monergism, and, after a short, sensible discussion, concludes that “orthodox monergists can believe in an evangelical version of purgatory as easily as synergists can, since both kinds of Christians believe that sanctification is gradual and difficult and almost never complete at the time of death…we might ponder…at least the prospect of purgatory and then work out our salvation today in cooperation with the will and work of God as diligently as we can.”

Robin Parry
Parry, who took on tough, seemingly anti-UR passages in his essay, notes that Walls failed to do the same (i.e., address the texts Burk cites in his response), and does the work for him. The rest of Parry’s response, which is well worth reading, presents his own musings on the concept of purgatory (which is perfectly compatible with UR). For this reader, footnote 54 on page 188 (how the early church dealt with the concept of God’s “wrath”) is just about worth the price of the book by itself.

The theological wrestling match has been called and the crowd gone home; all four contestants have passed out, and the ring is spattered with blood and gore. The ref is sitting in the stands, head in hands, momentarily dejected by the seemingly endless loops of Scriptural ambiguity; that is, until he looks up, to see none other than the risen Savior, bending over the unconscious combatants, and tenderly dressing their wounds.